Wednesday, February 06, 2019

deeply superficial


Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes were first exhibited at The Stable Gallery on West 58th Street, Manhattan in 1964.

More than any other early works it was these boxes that shot Andy into superstardom, and prompt the Columbia University philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto to proclaim ‘the end of western art!’.

Those boxes posed this question. ‘What distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art?’

In an amusing coincidence, the original commercial Brillo packaging as recontextualised by Warhol was designed by a fella called James Harvey.

Harvey was a lower league abstract expressionist painter – so far down he wasn’t even on the map - who (struggling to pay the bills through his art alone) had bitten the bullet and taken a job in advertising!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and advertising is still a business that few people really aspire to join. In particular, many creatives would much rather be directing movies or writing their novel than trying to get people to buy car insurance.

And so closing the irony loop, the striking Brillo logo had been designed by an action painter; a practitioner of exactly the kind of non-representational, raw expression art that Warhol’s was a reaction against.

Harvey wasn’t a fan of Warhol's work, although he did attend the opening of the 1964 exhibition and is said to have had a long chat with Andy. But didn't mention having designed the original Brillo packaging.

Never cross the streams.

This brings us to the much discussed Burger King/Warhol spot; probably the most interesting and important in this year’s #BrandBowl [sic].

Not because I think it was the best (I don’t) but because it is the most curious from a philosophy of advertising standpoint.

Not least in the way it spectacularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

Warhol/BK is in effect a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined around the time of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Designed to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation [sic], Fountain was a standard urinal purchased from Fifth Avenue hardware store and submitted into the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at The Grand Central Palace in New York.

Often described as ‘the most influential modern work of art ever’, the original urinal was lost sometime in 1917 and is only known from one single blurry photograph.

To see it today, several ‘replicas’ - authorized by Duchamp Inc - can be found all around the world, including the Centre Pompidou of Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco MoMA.

The film of Warhol eating a burger is essentially a readymade.

An existing non-advertising object, ‘found’ by Burger King’s agency and recontextualised as advertising.

Almost.

This piece of film is an ad only insofar as it is not an ad.

It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is.

This is called a dialetheia.

Or a 'true contradiction'.

(In philosophy this is the opposite of objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises!)

So Burger King’s spot is an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object, yet it is also both.

With Fountain and many of his other 'sculptures', Duchamp’s only contribution was to sign the object and exhibit it as art. Similarly Warhols only contribution to many of the works produced in his 'Factory' (including the Brillo Boxes) was to ‘sign’ or 'authenticate' them as art.

Using that logic, then, what are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

Burger King and their agency came oh-so-close to pulling off a great dialetheia.

Or a ‘true contradiction’.

What is media insofar as it is not media?

What could we simply label as advertising by ‘signing’ it?

However, BK snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag.

Because that made it an AD.

It then ceased to be what it is not – and became only what it is.

To simply run the film and sign it with the logo would have been a masterstroke of postmodern meta-advertising and signaling.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!

Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.


The balls to do that!

But they lost their confidence at the last second. They worried that we wouldn’t know who Andy was.

By the inclusion of self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining element (the #hashtag), what could have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the big stage instead becomes more like slightly hesitant parody.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Unlike pastiche which celebrates the work it imitates, parody simply mocks (eg citing a convention only to ridicule it).

Compromise is often around when ideas have things taken OUT but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between a great(ish) SuperBowl spot and THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.



Thursday, January 31, 2019

i can't see much of a future unless we find out what's to blame, what a shame.

The journalist Paul Morley said 'Buzzcocks came from the better side of punk, the bands who were aware of things like Faust and Can.'

He wasn't wrong.

By early 1976, and after building his own oscillator from scratch, Bolton Institute of Technology engineering student Pete Shelley had already completed a whole 'album' of experimental synth music, inspired by his love of Kraftwerk and other krautrock bands.

It was there that he first met Howard Devoto who was looking for someone to soundtrack an art movie he’d made. Howard was studying philosophy down the road.

Both Pete and Howard were avid NME readers and after reading a small review of relatively unknown London band, Sex Pistols, and inspired by a quote in the piece attributed to Pistols guitarist Steve Jones ('we're not into music, we're into chaos'), the new friends booked a small room at Manchester Free Trade Hall and invited the Pistols to play. This event June 1976 has gone down in history as 'the gig that changed the world' (among the 30 or 40 misfits in the audience were future members of Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and The Fall.)

The day after the show the pair immediately formed Buzzcocks and booked the Pistols to play again six weeks later with their own combo as support. At the second gig the hall was full to its 150 capacity.

The rest is history, of course.

Billy Bragg once remarked that if everyone who claimed to have seen the Pistols in '76 really had they would have sold out a month at Wembley Stadium rather than a few one-nighters at assorted Soho strip clubs. Correspondingly, if everyone who claimed to be at one of the Manchester shows had attended it would have been a week of sell-outs at the G-Mex.

(If every ad planner and marketer who claim in-depth knowledge of Ehrenberg-Bass principles had bought 'How Brands Grow' then I reckon Byron and co would be kicking back on a private island next to the ones occupied by Richard Branson and assorted retired Bond villains rather than still pursuing their academic careers.)

Paul Morley is also on record as claiming ‘I remember delightedly screaming, “This is like...Ornette Coleman!” when I went to see the early Buzzcocks play.'

(But he was now just being a bit silly, albeit setting the tone for much of his subsequent writing.)

Shelley’s iconic deliberately inane minimal two-note guitar solo in Boredom (from Buzzcocks debut EP Spiral Scratch) was pretty conceptual. 

The solo consisted of just two notes repeated 66 times, ending with a single modulated seventh. One suspects that it was this last flourish that Morley interpreted as the free-jazz component.

Pete played a Starway, a cheap Japanese brand of guitars sold in department stores. 
A rudimentary instrument, the Starway featured just one pickup and two control dials for volume and tone.

Shelley is said to have bought his in a Manchester branch of Woolworths. 
(While the guitars were sold there, Pete actually acquired his one - second-hand - in a charity shop.)

To be more exact, the four tracks on '...Scratch' were recorded using just TWO-THIRDS of a Starway.

Pete had accidentally smashed his axe into two pieces during a rehearsal.

The top part of the body snapped off but the guitar was still totally playable, and so continued to be his main tool until the band had a few hits and he could afford to upgrade to the (only marginally more sophisticated) Gibson Marauder.

If inspiring the DIY punk revolution with only two-thirds of a guitar was not minimal enough for you, Shelley's engineering chops learned back at Bolton Tech came in handy.

It's often been said that creativity can be propelled by constraints - even if the limits are artificial.

He rewired the insides of the Starway to bypass the volume and tone dials, sending the pickup direct to the jack - it was now two-thirds of a guitar with only ONE sound. It was a pretty good sound, though.

The economist Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher once coined the term appropriate technology. Meaning the 'simplest level of technology that can achieve the intended purpose'.

Simplicity has never been a bad idea.

In a world of applied appropriate advertising technology, most of the links in our complicated and bloated demand/supply chain - SSPs, DSPs, exchanges, third-party verification systems and various proprietary reporting mechanisms - wouldn’t even have a business. They wouldn't exist.

So-called 'safety' tech vendors have even more mysterious incentives given that they DEPEND on the continued existence of botnets, domain-spoofers and malware fraudsters for their own business model.

But when every step in a web ad 'value' chain is deliberately opaque, they all do to some extent.
A cynic would call it a cynical exercise in deliberate obfuscation.

The funny thing is that we think we know how this advertising technology demand/supply chain works, and the more available information we have, the more our confidence grows.

This is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (or IOED) - the persistent illusion people have that we know more about more than we actually do. IOED was coined in 2002 by cognitive scientists Rozenblit and Keil.

Rozenblit and Keil asked people to rate their knowledge of how mundane mechanisms worked – things like zippers, refrigerators and toilets.

Respondents rated their comprehension highly, but when pressed to explain their understanding, they tended to fail miserably.
Or the technological sophistication inherent to the adtech paradigm offers a veneer of profundity.
An illusion of explanatory depth.

As the old adage goes; where there's a mystery, there's a margin.

Fritz Schumacher also famously said; 'Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.'

But as the number of businesses between advertisers and publisher the advertiser grows - all claiming to do something - and 70 cents in every dollar gets eaten up by whatever that something is, we've never been further from sending the pickup direct to the jack.

But, you know the scene - very humdrum.


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

come on myelin, too-rye-ay

These people 'round here,
Were beat down, eyes sunk in smoke dried faces,
They're resigned to what their fate is,
But not us, no never - no not us, no never,

We are far too young(ish) and clever...

You're probably au fait with the ‘10,000 hours’ theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

In one example from his bestselling book Outliers, Gladwell asserts that getting in 10,000 plus hours of practice in the relative obscurity of Hamburg strip joints between 1960 and '62 helped the Beatles to propel - fully formed and honed - to the toppermost of the poppermost in 1963.

Dexy’s too, I don't know if they are known to Malcy although he is on record as being a bit of an Anglophile and a fan of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello.

Dexys Midnight Runners were formed in 1978 in by fellow Brummies Kevin Rowland and Kevin Archer from the remnants of punk band the Killjoys. Their first single hit the UK top 40 in '79 representing a transformation from one chord wonders to sophisticated soulsters in less than 12 months.

The band's name was derived from Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine. 'Speed' pills popular with dancers at Northern Soul all-nighters. Presumably, strategic usage would have been useful in enabling Dexy’s to get their 10,000 hours in a bit quicker.

This is entirely plausible. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols claimed to have learned guitar this way. Going from scratch to developing his unique power-chord style and recording the first Pistols demos in about 3 months by playing along - in marathon amphetamine assisted all day sessions - to the first New York Dolls album and the Stooges Raw Power.

Gladwell’s piece was based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State University.

Ericsonn specialises in the science of peak performance and, while probably grateful for the exposure Gladwell gave his work, is careful to add that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour rule.

It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.

For Ericsonn, deliberate practice means getting outside of your ‘comfort zone’ and pushing yourself to improve beyond your current abilities.

This is important because just being able to competently reproduce skills you’ve already mastered might feel good, but it’s not enough to make you get better.

But what happens physically, as we learn?

As it processes information, your brain makes connections growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons. Making new connections and breaking old ones.

But once a circuit is made, it needs to be used if it is going to stick around.

This physical process is myelination - the process whereby a circuit that is stimulated enough times grows a covering of membrane called myelin.

The wrapping of myelin increases conduction speed, making the circuit work more efficiently. The more the circuit gets exercised, the more it wraps and the stronger the connection becomes.

What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them?

Deliberate practice, focused attention and actively recalling the learning causes your brain to strengthen the new connections as does linking new bits of information to what you already know.

There’s a great myth – mostly perpetuated by youngsters - that we stop learning as we age. There’s no physiological reason why this should happen.

It’s more likely that many people just spend less time learning new stuff as they get older, and even when we do, we maybe don't do it with the same enthusiasm as we did when we were younger, so the neural connections don’t get made, the myelin doesn’t wrap. Too-rye-ay.

Ageing can also bring about the loss of some brain tissue, but this may have more to do with lack of exercise. Regular physical exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus area of the brain - crucial for learning and memory – in people of all ages, improving connectivity and making it easier for new things to stick.

Keeping that in mind, it makes sense of the new look adopted by Dexy’s mk2 of 1981-82, a move away from the young soul rebel ‘street cleaner/docker’ chic to the Rocky garb that included hooded tops, boxing boots and a corresponding strict fitness regime.

Kevin had the band working out together and running to the recording studio for 8am starts.
The band would also do group exercise sessions before shows and needless to say, alchohol and recreational pharmaceuticals were also strictly verboten.

Whilst not exactly textbook rock’n’roll behaviour the now ripped mk2 band shortly went on to produce - via another costume change, this time to an Okie farmhand/Irish gypsy hybrid - the gazillion-selling Too-Rye-Ay album and global number one hit Come On Eileen, at the same time pushing their sound into a new genre-defying combination of horns and fiddles driven blue-eyed-soul and celtic-folk crossover.

As far as science knows, no brain has ever run out of hard-drive space.

But some neuroscientists do agree on another reason cognitive skills may often slow down with age, not because the brain deteriorates, or fills up, but because it does need the occasional defrag.

So probably just as important as continuing to push yourself and your learning to develop new skills, is having a clear out of the crap you don’t need.

Come on myelin.

In this business that's probably never a bad idea. Even better, start young.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie,
And I don't believe you really like Frank Sinatra...