Friday, March 30, 2007

Bothering the Customers: Who do you represent?

There's the old saw that there are only two types of people in the world. If that's true then the Boston Police are people of the first type and the guerrilla marketers at Interference Inc. are people of the second. In all the kneejerk antiPATRIOT, antiGWOT reaction to this reaction, it'd be shame if we all forgot to call out these other guys. There's a certain respect and satisfaction to be had when authority behaves exactly as expected, and who expected the twitchy enforcers and politicians to come back with anything less than hysteria when faced with something they didn't understand? Worse than the overreaction, maybe, is the hypocrisy from the other side, the two jokers who put these things up in the first place. The charges against Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky should be dropped, but these guys are not martyrs. Criminal wrongdoing should be cleared off the table so that these two can face the inevitable round of critique and ridicule due them from the street art community that they claim to represent.

It couldn't be more apt that the jackasses who executed this stunt and their controllers are charged with perpetrating a hoax. In the proliferation of category errors flying around this case, it'd be a shame to forget the deliberate deception implicit in any guerilla campaign diguised as street art. This is a hoax, but it's not a fake bomb, it's fake art. News stories about these two have consistently called them 'video artists', and while they may have been that at one time, they don't rate that high on the food chain anymore. They gave up that status when they accepted money to deliver someone else's message disguised as their own. They traded their authenticity and street cred for cash, and they thought they were getting over. There's a term for the kind of person who does that, but it sure ain't 'video artist'.

It's not street art either, their attempts to link this project to more legit, politically active, better executed work by the Graffiti Research Lab notwithstanding. What Berdovsky and Stevens have actually done here is to take a new space cleared by other, better artists, and colonize that space with a marketing message. Now this is where it gets interesting: because that space, the public space of the urban street, was originally reclaimed from advertisers by using their own tactics against them. Bold, clear graphics and a short, consistent message were the qualities that early burner artists nicked from the billboards and posters all around them. The value of high visibility and repetition was also exploited, but the key difference between graffiti and advertising is obvious but important: graffiti isn't selling anything.

The question is: who do you represent? The most abstract, intricate, content-free artwork in the world exists as spraypaint on brick walls. Once the complexity and self reference have been decoded and untangled, all that's left is a name, and a pseudonym at that. In linguistic terms this is it, the Holy Grail, the Signifier with no Signified but the Inscrutable Me, expressed to the public as an incomprehensible advertisement: self promotion at it's finest.

And it's this aspect of incomprehensibility that's almost as important as the lack of content or product. It cuts to the core of our reaction to things that we do not understand: if there's enough complexity there then we can read many things into it, and our perceptions are thereby expanded, if there isn't enough there to reward our attention, then we ignore it and forget it, if there's an obvious reference to something recognizable outside itself, something that we can pay money for, it's an ad, if we're conditioned to act like paranoid assholes, it's a threat. This continuity between art/stunt/ad/threat is where the category errors seem to go down here, everything falling into the wrong slot like plinko. It's not a stunt masquerading as a threat, it's an ad pretending to be art.

So by taking advantage of the reappropriation of public advertising Berdovsky and Stevens are re-reappropriating modes of expression, generated by their betters, back into the commercial sphere. It's really too bad they got arrested doing it, and yes, the authorities overreacted, but doesn't this constitute some kind of crime against humanity? Sticks and stones and all that, but as this Metroplis magazine article explains, quoting Stuart Ewen (whose books I haven't read, but they seem highly relevant here):

“The main thing these appropriations ‘add’ to our lives is an intensified sense of distrust of and alienation from others. This grows out of the suspicion that any human interaction, any product used or opinion expressed, may be a commercially staged event designed to get us to buy, think, or behave in certain ways.”


As the article points out, Stuart Ewen's son Sam is the founder and CEO of Interference Inc., who, along with Turner, will help pay the $2 million fine. Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, the two fake-ass video artists who did the legwork, and placed these devices throughout Boston and Cambridge are charged with criminal behavior. They have a court date today, March 30. Keeping this case out of the courts will keep these two jokers from becoming martyrs for a cause they have no allegiance to. Here is some contact information:

Attorney General Martha Coakley (617) 727-2200 ext. 1700
Mayor Menino (617) 635-4500
(Somerville) Mayor Joseph Curtatone (617) 625-6600 ext. 2100
Govenor Patrick (617) 725-4005

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Listen:
What is/isn't art is completely subjective, as the word "art" is logically primitive and not definable. So basically, anything is art as long as you decide it is.

What guerilla marketing does is sidestep an entire set of established rules and practices (and subverting them in the processes) to accomplish a finished product. In the end, these two guys ended up making a product that completely redefines the idea of advertising.

The LED's are ads that:
1) have no label or brand attached to them
2) only "works" as advertising to people that *know about the show in the first place,* making these objects completely redundant and ineffective at drawing new viewers

It seems that street art itself is as much about branding, anyway: trying to get your name out there to be seen. It's just like advertising. Most street artists make art in places that draw people to look at it. How many street artists make work in places so oblique and hidden the piece will never be seen?

I don't really see what your problem with the ATHF LED's is. If anything, you should be upset because it makes the differences between "art" and "advertising" even more indestinquishable.

t3knomanser said...

"What Berdovsky and Stevens have actually done here is to take a new space cleared by other, better artists, and colonize that space with a marketing message."

All that means is that those "other, better artists" were successful. They opened the space, in the same way that the first impressionist painters opened a new space, in the same way that each new school of art opened a new space.

And now Munch paintings are used to sell cars.

And whether you like it or not, that's a good thing. Because those advertisements are art- they are creative works designed to express something. You might not like what they express, you might not consider it "valid", or whatever- but that only makes you sound like a snob. Adverts are art. More art is a good thing, because that means there's a better chance of more good art.

sevensixfive said...

anonymous - Just because it's subjective doesn't mean you can't argue about it, right? You decide it is, I decide it isn't, let's hash it out.

These guys didn't 'make' anything. These boxes were shipped to them and they hung them up. Maybe they could be could be called 'installers', instead, that's a little less pejorative, no? Can't see how that's redefining the idea of advertising, though.

As for street art being a form of advertising, the difference is crucial, it's not pointing to anything outside itself that can be exchanged for money. And I'm aware of a lot of work that's hidden and inaccessible, seen by only thse who are willing to explore and find it.

t3knomancer - You're right, the process is inevitable, doesn't mean it's above critique, though.

sevensixfive said...

I should also say that I do feel sorry for these guys, they only got paid $300 and they had to go through this legal nightmare. Totally sucks. Ask for more money next time, guys.

jere7my said...

News stories about these two have consistently called them 'video artists', and while they may have been that at one time, they don't rate that high on the food chain anymore. They gave up that status when they accepted money to deliver someone else's message disguised as their own.

How does that differ, in concept, from Michelangelo accepting a commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or van Eyck getting paid to paint a portrait? Commissions have had a distinguished role in art history; many of the greatest artists in the world accepted money to send someone else's message. Art is art, it seems to me; it doesn't matter how it got there.

Dan said...

I followed this story from a link on BoingBoing and after reading the opinions expressed on this blog, I only have to laugh. Writing in to comment on a highly publicized article only to send individuals to one's own web blog is a thinly veiled attempt at self promotion. As far as the "art" that was spoken of, I agree with others that say that art is subjective and can't be verified by a single individuals opinion. If anything, this act shed more light on how overreaction can cause more problems than terrorist activities (imagined or otherwise). Let's all use common sense and understanding when dealing with what may seem like a bad situation, so that we can continue to live our lives in a normal manner without panic and anger.

FutureNerd said...

I appreciate the clarification of these guys' roles in the blinky epsiode.

sevensixfive said, "Just because it's subjective doesn't mean you can't argue about it, right? You decide it is, I decide it isn't, let's hash it out."

Okay, so
It was cool.
It was a new thing unto itself.
It jangled people's perceptions.
It made conservatives upset.
It had blue and white LEDs.
It makes sevensixfive upset.
It was simple.
They may not have realized what they were getting into, but it took guts to defend it with the words, "That's not a hair question."
It was cool.
It serves the important social purpose of reminding people of two things: that every message is an advertisement, and that that's not always bad.

So, sevensixfive,

I agree that advertising can do evil things, and that advertising isn't always art to speak of. Are you saying that ads are never art and always evil?

You may feel this is evil because it's an ad that succeeded in reaching your consciousness. In other words, as long as we figure out ways of filtering them into the background, they're okay, but if they break through by coopting our styles, like spammers breaking through our filters--in other words, when ads succeed, then they're evil. Is that it?

Another angle: To me, the blinkies were clearly ads. To the extent they functioned as ads, they had to be recognized as ads. So what exactly is the pretense here?

Star said...

You're right when you say that people should not confuse this marketing campaign with an art project. The media has been incorrect in labeling it as such, and you are completely within your right to call them on that.

HOWEVER--As far as I know, Peter or Sean have never claimed that this was art.

I do not think that their involvement in this marketing campaign should invalidate the rest of their artistic contributions.

As a friend of Peter Berdovsky, I feel compelled to defend his status as an artist (video or otherwise).

I have known Peter for a few years, and over that time I've watched his work grow and develop.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you know Peter or Sean.

If you did, perhaps you'd understand that this whole incident speaks little about the volumes of work the both of them created before it happened, and continue to create after the fact.

No, the media was not correct to label ATHF campaign as art, and I'm glad that you're creating discussion about that.

But please don't say that these guys aren't artists.

sevensixfive said...

futurenerd said:

It was cool.

I'd disagree with that one.

It was a new thing unto itself.

Nope, disagree with that, too.

It jangled people's perceptions.

That's probably true, the episode as a whole did, but I would argue not in the way it was intended, which is okay, too.

It made conservatives upset.

Definitely, and that's almost always a good thing.

It had blue and white LEDs.

That's pretty well established.

It makes sevensixfive upset.

I wouldn't say upset. I do think that in general, the use of artistic tactics by advertisers is nothing new and it's even inevitable historically. But I think it's always a small tragedy.

It was simple.

Definitely had a kind of elegance that was admirable.

They may not have realized what they were getting into, but it took guts to defend it with the words, "That's not a hair question."

The 'Haircuts of the 70s' press conference was hilarious. And, as you say, took a lot of guts. These two deserve an unqualified shoutout for that one.

It was cool.

No, I think the initial stunt was kind of lame. The haircut press conference was pretty cool though.

It serves the important social purpose of reminding people of two things: that every message is an advertisement, and that that's not always bad.

Probably true, (see above comments about boingboing links) but also probably unintentional. And I think this only becomes apparent when you consider the thing from a lot of different angles, which is what I'm trying to do.

In doing that, maybe rhetoric has been pushed too far. Star's right, I don't know Peter and Sean, and it's easy to forget that they're not rhetorical devices, they're good people, I'm sure, that've been dragged through the muck for this.

Can't say enough, and without a trace of sarcasm, about how much I feel sorry for these two for their legal nightmare. It's good that it's over, and it's great that they won't be charged or jailed or fined. But after reading blatantly anticorporate statements on their own websites (see here, and here), I thought there was some inconsistency that should be called out.

It's worth reproducing that Stewart Ewen quote from Metropolis again here:

“The main thing these appropriations ‘add’ to our lives is an intensified sense of distrust of and alienation from others. This grows out of the suspicion that any human interaction, any product used or opinion expressed, may be a commercially staged event designed to get us to buy, think, or behave in certain ways.”

Dionysus said...

I am someone who actually knows the people involved -- not just the two men charged, but the crew of people who actually designed, built, and installed the units. They are the people in the indie video that made the rounds during the Boston Scare.

They received no money for their months of hard work. Their names will be unlisted, they will receive no personal glory.

The act was done out of love, and the thrill of a challenge. They would not have bothered helping Sean and Peter if the vibe of the project was marketing bull-shit.

You made the further mistake of assuming that the "executive management" of the collective comprises the whole -- kind of silly when you think about it, like the so-called rock journalists who credit the lead singer of a band with all its creative talent.

Dionysus said...

I will add, too, that I also found their meek response to the charges inconsistent -- until I was reminded that 'Zebbler' is a documented immigrant from a certain Eastern European nation whose government would be very interested in having a political refugee returned to its shores.

So he played nice, rather than risk disappearing after a few phone calls by a vengeful and incompetent government official...

sevensixfive said...

Nice one, dionysus.

The unpaid, anonymous collective, doing it for the love, executing the legwork of a multibillion dollar media company.

That's about a near perfect image of 21st century labor.

What do you think the value to Turner is, in name recognition, of the ongoing chaos and attention? Hope the collective reads the vibe better next time.

FutureNerd said...

I said the blinky ad campaign serves some important social purposes, and 765 said, "Probably true, [...] but also probably unintentional."

It depends on whether you're willing to give the guys a little benefit of the doubt. Did they realize it was an ad? Do they have any kind of opinions about, oh, capitalism? Did they believe they were completely escaping or overturning it?

765 said, "I think the initial stunt was kind of lame."

I'm sorry. A Mooninite, on this Earth, giving you the finger, in the dark, from under a bridge. We can argue about ultimate significance, but I don't see how the conversation can even be intelligent if you don't understand why and how this is cool.

Find some of the original Mooninite episodes of ATHF. You have to imagine people liking the show. If you can't, this conversation is dumb.

Also, maybe the "Adult Swim" group has something to do with this.

765 requotes Stewart Ewen:

“The main thing these appropriations ‘add’ to our lives is an intensified sense of distrust of and alienation from others. This grows out of the suspicion that any human interaction, any product used or opinion expressed, may be a commercially staged event designed to get us to buy, think, or behave in certain ways.”

That's just fearful and tepid. Every communication is trying to sell something. That's a basic truth quite independent of money, corporations, or whatever "evil". Reminding people of this is good, taking them out of a trance, back to the honest ground. It's as much a cause for distrust and alienation as the fact that people eat & poop.

The idea that a "commercially staged event" is tainted compared to, what, an all-natural personal event, or perhaps a true street art event, deserves challenge.

765, it seems to me you need to make a point more subtle than "money bad", if you want to defend art. I can see this is the sort of fraught territory where there might be a point to be made, but I don't see yours.

sevensixfive said...

futurenerd, thanks for coming back. You make a lot of good points. I've been a bit tardy responding, mostly because I had to think on it for a while.

First, remember that Berdovsky and Stevens didn't design these machines or dream up the campaign in the first place. The whole thing was planned by a guerrilla marketing outfit, Interference inc., The signs were shipped to Peter and Sean and all they did was pick spots, and then hang them. The backstory is here on wikipedia. They were the installers on this project, for one city alone out of several. To imply that they deserve any credit beyond this seems misguided, given the story as I understand it. If any friends of these two know a different story, please set the record straight.

But your point is more subtle, f-nerd. I think that we both agree there's a blurry line between self expression and self promotion, but you're alot more optimistic about the resilience of culture in absorbing, and even learning from, any transgressions across that line. I dig that kind of optimism, it's really admirable. When you call out that quote as sounding tepid, it kind of makes me want to rethink all of my instinctive revulsion for guerrilla marketing, and recast it as some kind fun game where we're all constantly trying guess everybody else's angle in any conversation. Like worldwide 'werewolf'.

But I do think that certain kinds of expression are more interesting than others, more new than others, and yeah, maybe less 'tainted' than others. Noncommercial expression exists, it exists in all media, and it exists in street art. Picture someone like REVS risking arrest, injury, and death, to paint what is, to most people, an incomprehensible word, high above the city, or deep below in a train tunnel where no one will ever see it. Yeah, it's his name, yeah, it's self promotion, but it's never monetized, and the guy's actually turned down tons of offers to cash it in. Because in one sense, that would be selling yourself, and that's kind of what I think Stevens and Berdovsky did.

And that brings up my other point, which dionysus' comment above nails, I think. As this glut in the 'creative class' continues to grow, you're going to see more and more stuff like this. Like I said above, there's nothing cool about the anonymous, unpaid collective doing 'it' for the love, when 'it' is the execution of the carefully laid plans of large media companies. Way to dilute the value of everyone's labor, guys. Try negotiating a paycheck next time, it's a lot harder than climbing an overpass.

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