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 ARTIST’S IDEA!
“Well, well, well,” I thought, pausing in the midst of the crowd, “What have we here? A charge, a J’accuse, 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 TBWAChiatDay’s 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 Richard’s notice, the Weekly had revealed that MOCA’s 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 he’d beaten both of them to it. And if Richard (pronounced ReeSHARD) seemed a wee bit suspicious about how TBWAChiatDay 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 Man’s Fire Hydrant Is Another’s 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 Manhattan’s 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 MOCA’s billboards, were deadpan imitations of museum labels, complete with the artist’s 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, “TBWAChiatDay is not only using Mr. Richard’s idea and execution, but the agency is also using his intent.”
To my mind, the questions Richard’s 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 n’est 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 don’t 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 ChiatDay’s campaign was from a friend at an ad agency, then from the Blue Man Group’s Chris Dias, who, in L.A. for the Grammies, saw the ads and assumed they were Richard’s work. When he found out they weren’t, he told Richard that it looked as if someone had ripped off his idea. The artist himself isn’t convinced of this, merely curious. “I’d like to speak to — or get a response from — the two creatives at TBWAChiatDay,” he said, adding that no one at MOCA or TBWAChiatDay 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 there’s 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 TBWAChiatDay. The portfolio circulated in New York and London before being returned to him with a “Thanks, but no thanks” about two months ago.
“It was just interesting more than anything,” he said. “But then I thought it’s easy to be paranoid in my position, finding things out for the first time. It wasn’t 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 MOCA’s 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 wouldn’t 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 TBWAChiatDay 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 Richard’s 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 TBWAChiatDay 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, it’s pretty obvious Richard won’t be getting any satisfaction from either TBWAChiatDay 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 company’s 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 author’s 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.