A few weeks ago I was strolling along Astor Place in New York City when I espied, affixed to a lamppost, a notice declaring:
LOS ANGELES MUSEUM STEALS N.Y. STREET ARTISTS IDEA!
Well, well, well, I thought, pausing in the midst of the crowd, What have we here? A charge, a Jaccuse, an East Coast arrow aimed at the heart of Los Angeles . . . Nor was this notice a mere photocopied wisp of punk babble stapled to a splintered telephone pole. This was a solid wooden placard, about 22 by 32 inches in size, onto which a carefully designed and illustrated press release had been laminated. Its argument, bolstered by photographic documentation as well as quotes from various publications, was that TBWA\Chiat\Days award-winning ad campaign for MOCA which uses giant museum-style labels to identify various parts of the city as art bears a striking resemblance to the designated art project of one Paul Richard, an artist who was using museum-style labels to identify as art urban objects and locations (fire hydrants, telephone booths, construction sites) as far back in human history as 1997-98.
A few weeks before I came across Richards notice, the Weekly had revealed that MOCAs ad campaign bears a marked resemblance to the one conceived last year by the British advertising agency Mother for the online art gallery Britart.com. Now here was someone claiming hed beaten both of them to it. And if Richard (pronounced ReeSHARD) seemed a wee bit suspicious about how TBWA\Chiat\Day had come up with the idea, one could see why. Not only had his plaques been visible on the streets of New York and Boston, they had also received extensive press coverage, most notably in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Photo by Brendan Bernhard
One Mans Fire Hydrant Is Anothers Objet Trouvé, ran the headline in The New York Times of May 24, 1998, over a picture of Richard seated next to a fire hydrant identified as such by one of his museum-style plaques. By affixing . . . plaques to sidewalk paraphernalia that strike his fancy . . . Mr. Richard has turned about 30 lucky items on Manhattans sidewalks, from a wooden tree barrel on Mulberry Street to a fire-alarm box across from the Whitney Museum, into objects of art, stated Times reporter Corey Kilgannon. The plaques themselves, like MOCAs billboards, were deadpan imitations of museum labels, complete with the artists name (Paul Richard), title of work (Untitled), materials used, measurements and a thank you to the city of New York.
I found the Times article on the Web, at paul richard.net. According to the online version of his press release, the plaques were designed to raise such questions as What credentials are necessary to call something art?, What context makes something art? and Can a museum label change the way people view their surroundings? The plaques were also, he confessed, a form of self-advertisement. In other words, the press release continued darkly, TBWA\Chiat\Day is not only using Mr. Richards idea and execution, but the agency is also using his intent.
To my mind, the questions Richards plaques were intended to raise (conceptual types always raise questions rather than ask them, probably for fear of the answers) were pretty yawn-inducing. Still, Richard himself, who appeared in several photographs, always in a suit and tie, looked like he had a sense of humor. And the appeal of the general idea was obvious. Advertisers like to feel arty, and arty types like to feel powerful (like advertisers). Sticking museum labels all over town would make both parties feel good. Can a museum label change the way people view their surroundings? Who knows? But to people working at MOCA all day, what fun if it could. On the sly, they probably had a go at writing a few themselves:
Ceci nest pas un feu rouge
(This Is Not a Red Light), 2001
Broken glass, twisted metal, burning flesh
Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Extremely Important Museum, 2001
White walls, baffling
installations and lots of
Courtesy of Ourselves
It was time to meet the artist. With his retro suits, chiseled features and air of brooding seriousness, Richard looks like the kind of hyperintense Surrealist who used to wander 1920s Paris with a love poem in one pocket and a pearl-handled revolver in the other. He lives on the Lower East Side, in a one-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Wendy, and an unruly canine he rescued after it was voted most likely to be executed at a kennel called Bark. This dog is spastic, he told me despondently at one point, jamming a baseball mitt into its mouth to shut it up. I dont know what to do with it.
Richard, 39, is a Duchampian prankster whose stunts include holding a book signing at Barnes & Noble without actually having written a book, inviting people to watch him eat lunch (baked pasta and plum tart) in the cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and exhibiting 20 of his paintings at the East Village Kmart. (The paintings, ranging from $1,000 to $6,200 in price, all sold, but then they were supposed to: The show was entitled Sold Out.)
A 1998 Richard Piece
The first Richard heard about TBWA\ Chiat\Days campaign was from a friend at an ad agency, then from the Blue Man Groups Chris Dias, who, in L.A. for the Grammies, saw the ads and assumed they were Richards work. When he found out they werent, he told Richard that it looked as if someone had ripped off his idea. The artist himself isnt convinced of this, merely curious. Id like to speak to or get a response from the two creatives at TBWA\Chiat\Day, he said, adding that no one at MOCA or TBWA\Chiat\Day had been willing to speak to him. (In contrast, Richard Murphy, marketing director of Britart.com, returned his call within a day.) Initially you can give somebody the benefit of the doubt, but when they become aware of the circumstances and theres no response, it makes everything more suspicious.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that, a year and a half ago, his portfolio was solicited by admirers of his guerrilla-art campaign at two major ad agencies including, he claims, by a former employee of TBWA\Chiat\Day. The portfolio circulated in New York and London before being returned to him with a Thanks, but no thanks about two months ago.
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It was just interesting more than anything, he said. But then I thought its easy to be paranoid in my position, finding things out for the first time. It wasnt necessary for someone to receive the portfolio to use the idea. Someone could have gotten the idea from seeing my work on the street, although what made me think about it also was that MOCAs intent for the idea was similar to mine, almost as if the interpretation was the same to get people to look at their surroundings differently. That wouldnt necessarily be picked up on the street, looking at the plaque. That part of the interpretation seemed like something that was picked up from print.
The folks at TBWA\Chiat\Day certainly seemed awfully defensive if not downright disingenuous when asked about Richard. Maya Rao, who wrote the ads, claimed not to have heard of him when contacted by telephone on May 25, though she became curt the moment his name was mentioned. Perhaps this was because an e-mail referring to Richards claims had been sent to both her and Moe Verbrugge, the other creative on the campaign, just 10 days earlier, by Larre Yee of AmericaOnArt.com (who was representing Richard in an informal capacity). Nor was this the first time the agency had heard from Yee. Mary Anderson, a TBWA\Chiat\Day account manager, was corresponding with him as far back as April 11. We did not set out to do something that has been done before, she wrote to him then, but unfortunately for all involved, it would seem that it has happened.
With the ad campaign now coming to an end, its pretty obvious Richard wont be getting any satisfaction from either TBWA\Chiat\Day or MOCA. Nor is it clear what satisfaction might be available to him, although, in the case of Britart.com, a civil conversation with the companys director appears to have been all the satisfaction he required. Plagiarism is notoriously difficult to prove, and common too. Great literature, wrote the humorist Robert Benchley, must spring from an upheaval in the authors soul. If that upheaval is not present, then it must come from the works of any other author which happen to be handy and easily adapted. Presumably, the same holds true for advertising not that its authors were ever accused of having souls.