Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Moose, an Ass, and a Little Bit of Crow

“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best - and therefore never scrutinize or question.”
-Stephen Jay Gould
All my life I've watched advertising assimilate and commercialize bits of culture.  From the rampant co-option of songs and phrases to the gross misappropriation of historical icons, nothing has been safe from The Market.  After several decades, I guess I've built up a bit of a grudge.

So when I saw a gasoline commercial that seemed to directly subvert a piece of reverse-graffiti protest art, I figured that I pretty well knew the score.  It was an old story, and I didn't really take the time to see if it was true. 

Instead, I went home, tracked down the videos, and wrote a rather fervent post about it.  At the time I felt like a bit of a sleuth, but now I feel like a bit of an ass.  Chris Yi, the creator of the advertisement, just happened by Letters from the Inquisition, and left a thoughtful comment calling me out.  So here I am, gratefully eating a bit of crow.

While I still feel that my basic observations were sound, the central premise of the post was based on two flawed assumptions.  Firstly, I wrongly assumed that Alexandre Orion was the originator of the reverse-graffiti method.  Secondly, I assumed that Yi had yoinked Orion's idea and used it in the service of Mammon.

In retrospect, both of those assumptions are foolish and unfounded.  I wish that it had occurred to me that I could contact Mr. Yi directly and ask what if any relationship existed between his and Orion's work.  If I had, I'm sure he would have privately set me straight, but instead I left him to do it in the comment section:

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.... 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.

Point taken, and I hope Mr. Yi will accept my apology for not having the wherewithal to contact him myself.  For all the interconnectedness of the web, it is a strangely impersonal medium, and it's pretty easy to forget that there are real people on the other end of the intertubes.  Unfortunately, my ignorance caused me to draw flawed conclusions from my observations, and my excess of zeal caused me to overstate my case.

Luckily, Chris Yi seems to be a good sport, and he tipped me off to the video above.  It features "reverse graffiti pioneer" Moose in the process of executing a large mural in the service of the makers of Clorox bleach.  The project is full-on advertisement but brings up some interesting non-bleach-related ideas.   

I find myself wondering to what extent commercial intent undermines broader message.  Though I mistrust corporate messaging,  I cannot wholly discount it.  In our capitalist, media-saturated society, much of our communication occurs through commercial channels.  Though it is economically motivated, this communication is an inextricable part of modern cultural exchange.  It manipulates the message, but is still subject to the zeitgeist.

In the end, I'm left with a quote from this video, which was featured on YouTube beside the Moose clip.   It's a nice counterbalance to the Cassandra theme of my previous post.  

What I don't like is a really critical message, like "Shitty System blah blah blah."  I think that if you want to criticize something you need to have a better idea how to do it, and then you can innovate.

So thanks and apologies to Chris Yi, and if any of you would like to reverse-graffiti my bathroom, I think it's pretty ripe for it.

By the way, that police bit at the end of the last video kills me.


Hungry Hyaena said...

While I think Chris Yi presents himself well in the comments section of your earlier post, I actually feel that your "take home" message was right on.

Indeed, the relationship between art and commerce is complicated; we see good examples of that truism in both the Moose and Orion clips you featured. But those two clips have a certain ambivalence about them, or at least an awareness of the darker elements present in the process. (Reverse graffiti is, after all, a collaboration with the residue of misbegotten or reckless choices.)

Yi's gasoline commercial, by contrast, is a slick, professional production, and any ambivalence or moral complexity has been drained away. It is, above all, art in the name of commodity, not art transmuted into commodity by the market alchemists.

As artists, we have an obligation to figure out some way to make our work act as a force for "good." As the reverse graffiti artist Georg Bildstein says, "you need to have a better idea of how to do it." Your earlier post was guilty of criticizing without offering a suggestion for a better alternative. Otherwise, it was spot on.

Chris Yi said...


Thanks so much again, like I said, you really didn't have to make this post and I really appreciate it. I'm just happy that my work is even being discussed in the first place,

I think both you and Mr. Hyaena over here have very intelligent and valid points. I'll be the first to admit that my little student commercial doesn't qualify as a "work of art". And I understand how it can be offensive to those who embrace reverse graffiti as a form of artistic environmental protest.

When I made this back in college, it was purely for fun and I didn't think much about the implications of using reverse graffiti. I completely agree with Hyaena, "As artists, we have an obligation to figure out some way to make our work act as a force for "good.""

Hopefully as I mature as a filmmaker (artist? Can I even call myself that? Nahhh) I can come closer to creating art that achieves that ideal. Until then, discussions like these help me think more critically about my work and my role as a filmmaker. Thanks for that.

And by the way, the police part of that video was hilarious. "It was impossible to persuade them" hahaha. Take care guys.

+ Chris