Art or Advertising: The Commercial Game

In partnership with FreewavesFreewaves is dedicated to the creative exhibition of the most innovative and culturally relevant independent new media art from around the world.

By Anne Bray

Los Angeles offers more contrasts within minutes and yards than other cities' hours and miles. L.A. opinions vary as widely. In this urban L.A. column, refreshed every 2 weeks, I will compare 2 short videos seeking your retorts. Two points of view side by side imply a question: which is right?

I start our dialogue with 3 French artists' [Stephane Degoutin, Marika Dermineur & Gwenola Wagon] web site which generates random pairs of images of identity to gauge how much mass media affects who you are. While you view, contemplate 2 facts: the advertising industry's profits in USA total $23 billion a year and we each absorb 5,000 ads a day. Do we form our own opinions and occasionally know who we are?

Differentiating between commerce and art plays a large role in the definition of culture for a city. To paraphrase myself from MAK Center's HOW MANY BILLBOARDS, Los Angeles city's lawyers just spent two years working on the signage ordinance to offer clear guidelines to distinguish between murals and billboards.

Last year, there were also 20 lawsuits issued by billboard companies versus the City of Los Angeles regarding zoning's determination of why one neighborhood can have free speech in advertising while another neighborhood's ads are restricted.

Can viewers even tell the difference between ads and art? Freewaves has been showing artists videos on L.A. Metro buses and asking the one million daily riders a pointed question about each video. In Lisa Marr's "Ad or Art, Anuncio o Arte" she asks viewers whether they would differentiate whited-out signs versus abstract painting versus the backside of a billboard; a hand-painted sign versus a hand-modified corporate ad; slices of the graffiti-ed Berlin wall on Wilshire Blvd and a flag mural; and painted pictures of sale items and stenciled icons. The most impassioned viewer on the bus responded by attacking the question.

Half of the bus riders say they see art in the bus; half say they don't in the same 2000 buses! About 91% like art, yet don't distinguish between art and ads. If things are so muddled, how do we categorize graffiti? Poetry posters? Tattoos? or Stickers? Or, those special hairdos and outfits on some of Metro's more flamboyant riders? Are all visuals under the same rubric?

For me, the contrast couldn't be greater. Art sends me to new places in the universe, while ads try to lure me to the mini mall. Art asks me to think. Ads tell me what to do. Ad's imperative voice often sounds like a sweet dictator, butter this, wash that, swig, swallow, munch, pour, sweep but most of all, purchase. Art asks me if I'm sensitive or aloof, informed or blasé, balanced or off kilter. Whatever my answer, it tries to lend a hand. As augmented reality, QR codes and Google goggles enter our personal lives and public space, let's learn how to decide. For more, see Adbusters.org or go to our website of videos on buses.

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