By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
I was driving through Westwood last week and stopped at the light at Westwood and Santa Monica boulevards next to an idling Big Blue Bus loading passengers, when I noticed an ad on the side in austere museum text-panel drag, reading:
People on a Bus, 2001
Metal, rubber, glass, diesel, people, on concrete
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art,
This sighting caused an immediate reaction among my vehicle’s occupants, uniformly negative. What were they thinking? ”Rejoice, subautomotive working-class scum of L.A.! For now you are a work of art!“ Still, we talked about it all the way to Pico, and I couldn‘t get it out of my mind -- usually signs of powerful advertising, though I doubt impoverished art professionals fall within the targeted demographic. In short order I became aware that this lone bus ad was just the tip of a public-relations iceberg, ”MOCA’s first-ever awareness campaign,“ created by corporate advertising giant TWBAChiatDay, the firm responsible for Absolut Vodka‘s art-friendly ads, the Energizer Bunny, Apple’s ”Think Different“ campaign and ”Yo Quiero Taco Bell.“
Over the next month or so, and continuing through June, MOCA‘s ”2001 Brand Awareness Campaign“ will position 60 site-specific labels as billboards throughout the city, allowing Angelenos to see anew such overlooked ready-mades as freeway congestion on the 405 at Centinela (Serenity, a Study, 2001), the Bar Marmont (Beautiful People Standing Around Hotel Lobbies, 2001) and the Circuit City just east of the Sunset-and-Hollywood junction (Untitled [Six Palm Trees and an Electronics Shop], 2001). In addition, the campaign will appear in the L.A. Times, on the Sunset Boulevard video-loop board, on those post-card racks in bars and restaurants, on movie-theater slides, KCRW radio, local TV, dry-cleaning hangers, paper coffee-cup bands and gas-pump handles. And on the buses.
Apart from the unfathomable condescension inherent to what amounts to a smug citywide territorial pissing, the wholesale conversion of arbitrary chunks of nonmuseum life (chosen mostly for their adjacency to billboards running from the Westside to downtown) into second-rate ’60s conceptual art is hardly going to convince the ”sometimes wary advertising-bombarded youthful audience“ targeted by the campaign that a wealth of cutting-edge creativity is lurking on Bunker Hill. Nor will it ingratiate itself with many artists, even the ones who still think using a museum label to identify smog as art is a pretty neat idea. Apart from the fact that MOCA commissioned a multinational advertising conglomerate to do what could have been done by individual professional artists, the jokes just plain suck.
Admittedly, TWBAChiatDay Los Angeles had to come up with almost 90 simultaneous variations on the same one-liner, where with, say, the Energizer Bunny, they just need one new one every few months. But the general shoddiness of these punch lines suggests that not much editing occurred between their first brainstorming session and taking it to the printers. Most rely on a sort of all-purpose irony that suggests there‘s something unspeakably droll about valet parking or furniture stores; some aren’t even funny, but strive for some sort of twee Fluxus-lite poeticism. The most scathing billboard captions seem reserved for the not-beautiful people -- the billboard at Lincoln and Rose purports to identify ”Why Lincoln is ugly“ in Car Washes and a Couple of Taquerias, 2000 (the canyon of fascist architecture along Grand Avenue being so much more visually stimulating than Pic ‘n’ Save and La Cabaña). Quite apart from the decidedly unrigorous, scattershot thematic array, the glib assertion that the campaign ”is intended to prompt people to consider afresh their surroundings“ is patently hypocritical, as the desired response to the ads is clearly ”What a clever ad! Maybe I‘ll try some of that Museum of Contemporary Art.“ I’m not saying that advertising isn‘t art, or that TWBAChiatDay isn’t responsible for some of the best, but neither they nor MOCA is going to gain any credibility from clumsily co-opting what was (40-plus years ago!) a serious artistic attempt to alter people‘s way of seeing the world, in an attempt to compete with the Lakers.
So what does happen when an institution does the right thing and turns to an actual artist to generate public awareness? The Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station imported the young Brooklynite Stephen Keene to fill its space with 10,000 of his dashed-off acrylic-on-plywood paintings as both a publicity-generating event and a fund-raising drive -- Keene’s paintings being priced between $3 and $25. The artist has been installed in a makeshift studio in the center of the large space, constantly refilling the walls-full of nearly identical takes on the buildings and collections of Los Angeles‘ other museums. As a fund-raising idea, this isn’t bad. As art it is. About one-half of all painters go through a phase of churning, indiscriminate productivity, and more than a few get stuck there. But they haven‘t made it their shtick. There are probably a hundred local painters who would’ve taken this gig for the exposure alone, but because Keene has labeled his graphomania a higher order of creative activity -- an ongoing performance that critiques the commodification of art, the preciousness of objects, the elitism of collector culture, etc. -- he got the nod and invited critical scrutiny of the project as a conceptual art piece.