Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cleaner is Better: From Protest to Advert

Terror grips me as I hear these truths
without embellishment. As for the rest,
hearing that just makes me lose my way.

I tell you you'll see Agamemnon dead.

Poor girl, calm yourself. Tone down those words.

No—no one can heal what my words prophesy.

Not if they're true. But may the gods forbid!

While you pray here, others move in to kill. 

What man is going to commit such crimes?

What man? You've completely missed the point.
You've failed to understand my prophecies.
from Agamemnon by Aeschylus

In 2007 Alexandre Orion wiped soot from the walls of a Sao Paulo tunnel to create a sweeping vista of skulls. His reverse graffiti piece was an elegant act of protest, which drew images of death in the very poison itself. The authorities were confounded, because cleaning is not vandalism and is not a crime. Unable to punish the 'offender,' they were forced to clean the entire tunnel and, later, all the tunnels of the city.

Orion documented the process and released this YouTube video:

I first read about Orion on Bioephemera, and he has been knocking around in my brain ever since. He is, like so many of us, Cassandra wringing her hands at the gate. We can see the tragedy unfolding around us, but are left with little to do but cry out. While the story of Orion seems to have a victorious ending-- the tunnels cleaned, the world singing his praise-- it is little more than a cheerful note in a gloomy, discordant opera. The cars still drive, and, as Orion's own video points out, the toxic soot is simply transformed into a black, bubbling ooze that vanishes into a storm drain.

Yet, Orion's unembellished statement has suffered a curse far worse than what Apollo handed down. Cassandra's contemporaries simply refused to believe her words. Orion, however, lives in the Orwellian world of corporate advertising. His dire message has been co-opted, purged, and re-used to sell the very gasoline that created the poisonous soot.*

76 Commercial - Cleaner Is Better from Chris Jaemin Yi on Vimeo.

Gone are the dark tunnels and sulfurous light. Gone are the furtive resistance and melancholy hope. Gone are the grime and the gas mask.

Instead, Yi's protagonist, cleanly dressed and smiling, stands in a well-lit parking garage. On his way to his condo, no doubt, he is seized by the the notion to do something that is just... well, dang it... it's just darn nice! Moved by altruistic vigor and unabashed corporate zeal, he fills the walls with pretty swirls, a happy sun, and a meticulously executed 76 logo. Then he steps back, pats himself on smugly on the back, and nods. Gosh darn it, cleaner IS better.

Looking at the two videos side by side reveals some interesting differences. To me, the most striking are the color and the music.

Filmed in situ, Orion's documentary footage is dark and reminiscent of the classical 'Spanish Palette.' Yi's video, in contrast, is light and airy. Notice how skillfully Yi uses the white walls to highlight the bright notes of primary colors that are in frame for virtually the entire video. Here we have Goya vs Playskool, and it's little surprise which is featured in a corporate ad.

Similarly, Yi's music, for which I can find no author credit, is full of pep and verve and virtually shouts 'OMG!' and 'LOL!' in all caps. It's upbeat music for a sunny afternoon. The music feels repetitive and empty. 76 does not want you to think too much. Just get the message and feel good about the brand. In contrast, Orion's music, which is credited to Instituto, prompts introspection and thought. It changes and swells, pulls back and expands. Combined with the imagery, it paints the portrait of a small, hopeful man in a dark and complex world.

To be fair, Yi's soundtrack, clocking in at 23 seconds of music, doesn't have as much room to maneuver as Orion's, which, at 161 seconds, is exactly seven times longer. It would be easy to write the difference off to scale and move on. Yet, if you listen only to the first 23 seconds of Orion's video the contrast is striking. Coincidentally, the first 23 seconds of Instituto's music is composed entirely of a single repeating motif. Notice, however, the subtle permutations and inversions of that motif. A great deal of thought has gone into creating complexity in that one simple segment. I get the impression that both Orion and Instistuto would appreciate an equal amount of thought from their audience.

I do not begrudge Mr. Yi his success. The other video that he has posted on Vimeo is longer and belies a thoughtful and concerned mind. He is a skilled commercial filmmaker, and I have no doubt that we will see more of his work. Nevertheless, even as I congratulate him on winning the 76 competition, I am saddened by the insidious influence of corporate advertising. As individuals, we all have our disparate and justifiable motivations. We work to fill our bellies and protect our friends, families, and interests. Yet, somehow and inevitably, we advance the plot of the tragedy. From the mighty Agamemnons to the soot covered Cassandras, we all play our part to fulfill the curse on the House of Atreus.

* I recognize that this commercial is to promote a cleaner burning gasoline. Taken at face value this is certainly a lesser evil. Yet, in the end, it is an ad to promote the sale of gasoline, and only a fool takes commercials at face value.

Credits: Photo from Alexandre Orion's site; Agamemnon text from the website of Ian Johnston


Anonymous said...

I love this post, thank you so much for pointing this out. I think your analysis is pretty astute, the tragedy of the subject matter is actually evident in both videos (if the audience were to think about it). It's very interesting when concurrent trends of protest and commodity cross-fertilise! In my optimistic and/or slightly cynical view it feels to me like there's subversion going on in both directions. I guess the one is always in the other: branding has it's place in both camps, it just depends on what use you are making of it.

Michael said...

Very true. Orion's work does display many of the same features that make for a successful publicity campaign-- impeccably edited video and sound, professionally designed website, viral marketing. Cross-fertilization indeed.
Ironically, Yi's online persona is far less refined than Orion's. I suppose the real story is how, with each ad and every slick new artist site, we as a culture become more enmeshed in the media-saturated world of spin and PR.
The revolution will be commodified.

Chris Yi said...

Hey Michael, thanks for taking the time to watch my spot and write about it. I think you bring up a lot of interesting points about advertising and it's intersection (corruption?) with art and protest.

But you talk about how my commercial has taken Orion's "message" and co-opted it, when I feel differently. I used the same Reverse Graffiti MEDIUM that he did, but as with all mediums, we used them for our own separate messages.

Reverse Graffiti is a technique that's been used by many other artists than Orion, and many times before his amazing Sao Paulo piece. Yes, the medium has been used as a form of protest, but more often it has served as just another form of artistic self-expression - with or without any specific message attached

And with that in mind, I feel that your blow-by-blow comparison of the two videos is like comparing apples and oranges. Orion's work is a beautiful and poignant protest piece, mine is a lighthearted student commercial meant to entertain - the only thing they have in common are that they both use reverse graffiti. That's like comparing Fridah Kahlo to Bob Ross cause they both use the medium of paint (shitty example, I know).

You might be interested in checking out the Clorox campaign that used reverse graffiti pioneer Moose ( It's a documentary piece with a message...but it's advertising commissioned by Clorox. Thoughts on that?

So I guess I'm saying that I don't believe I'm perverting Orion's work, I think we're just 2 more people who used the medium of Reverse Graffiti to create completely separate works.

But thanks for even taking the time to look at my stuff and for the positive feedback on my JazzReggae piece, I really appreciate it. Sorry for the long comment, you've got awesome blog here, I'm definitely subscribing. Take care

Michael McDevitt said...


Thanks for stopping by and calling me out. I think I owe you an apology. It was irresponsible of me not to try to contact you and ask you for your input, and indeed I feel like a bit of an ass in retrospect. I'm going to have to plead inexperience and hope that I've learned a good lesson.

I do think that the 'blow by blow' is a valid comparison, and I stand by my observations. Unfortunately, my ignorance caused me to draw flawed conclusions from my observations, and my excess of zeal caused me to overstate my case. Sorry.

Thanks for being a good sport, and thanks also for the Moose link. I'm going to make a post about this right now.