Making a mouthpiece for company’s renegade thinking

<Select texts>

Irreverence Reverence

I am in awe of Prada Marfa. If you’ve come across it, then you’ll know that Prada Marfa is a sculpture, a life size copy of a Prada store, built near Valentine, Texas, with Prada’s blessing. Stocked by Miucca Prada herself, it is not open. It has never opened. Its doors are sealed and it will never be a shop.

Instead, it sits, as designed (by Elmgreen and Dragset), built to waste, to wrack and ruin. It’s an equal union between art and commerce, an unnatural affair, and as such, bound to fail, as what self-respecting brand lends its name to a work that to all intents and purposes strips it of its original functions – that is, to sell its own goods from its own store? And what self- respecting artist allows a sponsor so close an involvement? Kiss of death – for both.

Only, no. To look at, Prada Marfa is in itself a truly beautiful object. As concept its utter incongruousness remains consistently startling. And, almost more compelling, Prada, its subject, irreverent experimenter, emerges the stronger for it. Audacious in the extreme, it is in fact a perfect idea, a perfect piece of art, and a perfect piece of branding. Prada Marfa today is a shrine, one at which pilgrims leave business cards by way of offerings. I can’t tell you how rare such a thing is.

Salvation Mountain

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the sheer strength of message in Salvation Mountain. Found close to Slab City, in the desert in California, the life work of Leonard Knight, unwavering convert and self-taught maker and painter, Salvation Mountain is a folk art monument to the love of god.

Made of adobe clay, straw and paint, a winter shrine, the subject of a clutch of books, films and documentaries on Christianity, art and American eccentricity, its signed and patterned surfaces a riotously vibrant invitation from god to you, it is the bible branded for the distracted. Stop the car, it says. Turn off the radio. Get out. Look. Enter. Feel. Know that god is love. Less the intricacies of a code embedded in the likes of the Sistine Chapel, it speaks simply and singularly and naively, its voice the voice of a peasant-saint, the apparent profundity of its message read and felt in a glance. A design made for speed, it is a piece of flash fiction, the shortest of stories, one great big yell: God Is Love.

In a world where many a brand story is either so muddled as to lose any sense of message, or so boringly articulated as to fly over the top of our heads, Leonard Knight’s mountain is a shining example of how to make the point – quickly, clearly and beautifully.

The Meeting Place

One of my favourite examples of people-powered moment making is Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, in Chicago, America. This, I know, is a strange thing to say, given the obvious fact of the Crown Fountain being permanently located on Michigan Avenue, in the middle of the city, its two 16 metre tall towers very much part of the built environment.

Surely it would be easier to look at what the commissioning of such a prominent landmark says about the city of Chicago itself? Maybe, but Plensa has taken the concept of fountain as meeting place beyond the idea of space, his interest being to create a kind of memory-aleph, a portal to time – time being a vast untouchable thing made of the memories of the endless mingling of people. Meaning: the towers, which face each other across a skin-thin rectangle of water, and feature the constantly changing water- spitting faces of 1000 Chicago residents, are designed to make space for the flourishing of moments.

That’s it. It’s a beautiful thing, and brave too, and – from the point of view of brand making – very much worth thinking on. Places may speak, but only if there are people to make them speak. Simple.

On the Making of Disciples

Clearly, a key element of the idea of a story well told is the point at which it should begin, answer questions, and reward effort. This is the moment that the storyteller puts an arm around your shoulder, pulls you back from the sheer fuzz of it all, bows and with a flourish of its pointer stick says: This is yours. Go. Explore.

As seen, Burberry’s more than marvellous at this, but perhaps even better is the absolute generosity of public space maestros, KMA, whose work is in itself all about turning the curiosity of individuals into the creative bravery of crowds. All their work is very good, but my absolute favourite is Congregation, an interactive kinetic light installation, first shown at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. I say installation, and that’s what KMA call it, but really it’s a gathering of curious individuals, a conflation of single humans that, in coming together, at the behest of some strange centrally placed creature, use light to create patterns of connections that demonstrate in no uncertain terms the kaleidoscopic beauty of crowds. In linking us together by light, and in patterns controlled by us as us, KMA has created something that is both hugely simple and endlessly complex.

However, whatever its easy intricacies, what I especially like about it is its enormous capacity for giving. Congregation rewards our curiosity with the satisfaction of having helped make beauty, and at the same time it performs a feat of magic. It makes collective joy from that most unlikely of postmodern ingredients: the neurosis of the terminally individual. I say magic because I mean magic. It’s the most beautiful of gifts – and also the most beautiful of debts. All hail KMA.

The Brilliant Presence of Cirque du Soleil

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, in which Cirque du Soleil’s Sarah Guyard- Guillot died from a fall, the first actor to do so during a live performance, the second in the company’s history, it’s worth reflecting briefly on what it is that makes it, for circus performers, the holy grail, and for us, purveyor of some of the most extraordinary spectacles you are ever likely to see.

In an age such as ours, in which the virtual has been so fine tuned as to become almost a carbon copy of the real, we are, I think, nearly numb to the fact that something as breathtakingly original as the vertical stage, as employed in Cirque de Soleil’s lavishly complex Ka, could possibly exist outside the world of post-production. The very extremeness of an idea of a stage in the vertical, with battle scenes enacted on it by living people, from great heights, in real time, makes even the most brilliant of scenes from the most brilliant of films pale into insignificance.

Ka’s beautiful and very visceral. It’s extreme stagecraft, the likes of which we’ve never seen. It is, in short, acutely present – as Guyard-Guillot’s death so tragically underlines.

Designing for the Fun of Crowds

It’s old hat, I know, but when thinking about spaces that are both show and stage, I think often of Olafur Eliasson’s groundbreaking The Weather Project at the Tate Modern, London, in 2003.

The fourth installation in the Unilever Series, designed especially to show huge scale works, The Weather Project saw a massive sun, the sky, mist and the colours yellow and orange transform the Turbine Hall into a place of primal beauty. And it is for this that we went: to experience the transcendental beauty of the sun, close up, the 360 degree solarised experience as near a form of natural worship as one could artificially get.

However, the show also became our stage – and not in the way the artist and curators might initially have imagined. Rather than simply become good pagans, our bodies bowed in various forms of modern supplication, the sun the object of our worship, we noted when looking up that we, all of us, were reflected in the ceiling’s enormous mirror. Further, if we lay down, we saw that we made interesting shapes. And, finally, we realised, if we joined up with others, that these shapes we made were the reflections of a community at spontaneous play.

I don’t need to tell you how exciting this is, or how important it is that we learn, when designing spaces, to expect the unexpected, but I think the idea of the intuitive playfulness of crowds an idea worth exploring – now.

Burning Man: the Uncommodified Space

Branders all. I come in peace. This week, as of Monday, a part of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, America, is transformed into a veritable city, its citizens the most creative and alternatively consumptive you will ever have had the good fortune of meeting.

Now, please note: You may look and you may touch. You may play and you may experiment. But don’t, whatever you do, take it home. If you’ve been, then you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, then you must know that the festival – which ostensibly circles about the moment a giant effigy, symbol of community, radical-self expression and Dadaism, is set alight – has absolutely nothing to do with the day job. Welcome to Black Rock City, home of the Burning Man, of the absolute now.

Indeed, nothing of this 45,000 strong utopia – not the parades, the music, the activities, art or architecture – is sponsored by anything but the simple act of gathering in the same place at the same time. Walter Benjamin would have loved it. There’s no money, no networking. The criteria for exchange – if any takes place – are written on the hoof. The purpose of any engagement is to be found in the act itself, in doing, in giving yourself over to a giant experiment. The lesson? Let go. The Burning Man is not for bottling. Drink it in. Create. Destroy. Have fun. Sell nothing.

The World’s Most Perfectly Brave Story

For a real piece of cards-on-the-table advertising, top of your list has to be paint company KNOxOUT, who last year demonstrated in true radical fashion its USP: namely, that its paint had the effect of improving the quality of air we breathe.

Taking Manila’s section of the Philippines’s EDSA, one of the world’s most polluted highways, it commissioned a team of international street artists to paint an 8000 metre stretch of contiguous mural – and then invited the independent and public Manila Observatory to (re)measure the quality of the area’s air. Before sharing with you the observatory’s findings, may I remind you that, until now, hardly anyone had heard of a photocatlyst technology that professed to render harmless molecules of air pollutants and particulates; and that, even if we had, mostly everyone would have predicted the immediate and messy death of a company called KNOxOUT.

Needless to say, KNOxOUT is alive and very well. Measurements post painting found air pollution levels to have dropped by an astonishing 20%. That’s the paint doing the work of 8000 trees in a place where there is nothing but concrete, roads and the daily payload of two million vehicles. I love this: a piece of illustrative branding, conducted – in public, on an enormous scale– in the most unforgiving of conditions. It’s good. It’s brave. It’s the world’s biggest air filter.

Ads with a Purpose

The simplest ideas are often the best, and they needn’t be had by somebody small and independent and endlessly creative. Even an old giant like IBM can have a good idea.

Which isn’t fair because IBM constantly surprises, though I think you’d be hard pushed to find something quite as simple and as original as its Outdoor as Utility campaign: that is, the billboard or poster made into something more than messenger. A part of the People for Smarter Cities project, IBM’s making of an advert that is also a bench or a shelter or a ramp is a wonderfully clever piece of messaging: low in fat, high in thought, it takes something as rigidly 2D as the poster and gives it a third dimension, a tiny spatial tweak that – suddenly and quite brilliantly – turns a largely semiotic space into place for the body, literally.

Add to this the beauty of these advertising mutants, and you’ve got a brand new type, a hybrid, a form of messaging that gives as much as it takes. It’s generous and clever – and beautifully executed.

<See more at FreeState>