Public Phenomena

ENRICHMENT VERSUS INFLUENCE

Have you seen the slogan “You are Beautiful” on billboards around the county? The words are also printed on small metallic stickers that are turning up around town. I picked up a few at a local gallery and stuck them in a couple strategic spots places that were well received by unsuspecting others. Who does not feel just a little happier to read those three words?

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Reminiscent of the Dove soap campaign last year with the tagline “You are more beautiful than you think,” this one is an art project initiated by Chicago artist, Matthew Hoffman. Sponsored by Albright Knox in partnership with Lamar Advertising, the immersive presentation here in Buffalo is underway as part of a series of public artworks intended to “enrich” the lives of people who live here.

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The Shark Girl (Casey Riordan Millard) sculpture at Canalside has quickly become the go-to location for pics. The curious girl sits on a rock with just enough room for you to sit beside her (and pose for the camera). A temporary mural of Buffalo caverns was installed outside the downtown library in August by the Tape Art Collective. Although it was up for only a week, the artwork created with painter’s tape was an attempt to engage the community through art. Just as nutrients and fortification are added to foods to make us healthier and stronger, public art aims to add a bit of stimulation and joy to the street life experience. Art appreciation can be introduced outside the arena of academics. Enrichment is one of the trending words that have surfaced in recent years. Becoming rich in resources or love may be unlikely for many, but enrichment is available for all. Hoffman’s message is just the right salve to soothe the exhausting pursuits of our insecure time.

Down the road, another public display has turned up at the site of the 100-foot grain silos. Initially, this appeared as a surprising artful enhancement of the skyline. The silos have been wrapped in vinyl to appear as Labatt Blue beer cans—possibly the largest six-pack in the entire world. This clever concept publicizes the coming of a new development project to transform the historic area into a brewery, entertainment and recreation complex. Revitalization began a couple years ago when artists staged performances and exhibitions in the silos, events that wove Buffalo’s industrial past into the credibility of our growing arts community.

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While the RiverWorks project will add to the harbor’s tourism potential, the blatant advertising coloring the historic vista stirred online discussions buzzing earlier this Fall. Walk into any bar and you will see people drinking Labatt Blue beer. It’s cheap and contains no preservatives. Do they really need over-the-top advertising? Many feel that the public should have been involved in the decision. Some are simply offended to see a beloved historic site altered. Others welcome the entertainment value–they call it Pop Art. Why not? Blinking neon and commercial signage of all kind mark all the major high-rise skylines of the world. The financial arrangements are not hard to understand.

I first heard about the concept of visual pollution years ago by a teacher who warned that some art production may be toxic to the environment. Living with others requires a certain amount of tolerance for barking dogs, loud music, and poor taste. We learn to endure these annoyances as part of getting along. What about pollution of the visual field? Access to spacious views may be suddenly cut off as a taller building is constructed nearby. This happens in cities all the time. Now the view of the historic silos has been altered. The idea of transforming the can-like silos must have been an exciting moment for those involved, but the rest of us are left with commercial influence rather than enrichment.

Last year, I saw a photo of wall art on the side of a west coast building–a shadowy figure with scrawled words: “Make something or be forgotten.” This thought-provoking phrase stuck with me. I later learned that the artful wall was an ad campaign for Levi, minus a visible logo or corporate identity. It simply added to (enriched) the skyline and the minds of those who looked. Refreshing!

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Matthew Hoffman’s encouraging words (You are beautiful) are the flipside of more challenging phrases from sign art projects popular decades ago. One of Barbara Kruger’s memorable statements, “I shop therefore I am,” might be adapted for today by replacing the word “shop” with “consume.” Consumers need not enter a store.

Nothing represents consumption better than toxic vinyl. Vinyl wrapping reminds me of the over-sized inflatable holiday yard decorations that are more like commercial promotions that twinkly festive beauty. This is the season for the turkeys, reindeer, and snowmen that totter in the wind of residential neighborhoods inevitably lose air and become droopy and depressing. The well-meaning people who decorate with inflatables seem to selling us the holidays. Consumption is a way of life. Individuals brand themelves with personal logos, identities, and avatars. You can even get paid every month to allow your own vehicle to be vinyl wrapped with advertising. Product placement in movies and television is routine. Hundreds of ads on social media are scrolled over every week and moviegoers are willing to endure fifteen commercials as we sit at the movie theater before the previews begin. Advertising and entertainment are almost indistinguishable these days. Art as enrichment lurks nearby at a careful distance.

The wrapped silos sets a precedent for more advertising creeping into architectural projects. Anyone who questions this may be viewed as a party pooper, but why not inspire something beyond mindless logo recognition and the influence that follows? The answer is easy for Labatt.  To all those faithful patrons at the checkout counter or bar paying for Blue: “You are Beautiful.”

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October 2014


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