I thought I would be really clever and bunk off work a few hours early on a Friday to visit the Talk to Me show at MoMA. Breeze in past the crowds with my press pass and check it all out at a leisurely pace. Of course I forgot that Friday is when Target so generously gives out free passes to normal people not just industry people. As I made my way up to the third floor, where the bulk of the show is, the crowds thinned. I suppose that digital art and design is not that much of a pull for people outside of the profession. Not yet anyway. What was noticeable though is that there is a generation of kids that simply feel every screen should be touchable. They frowned when one exhibit was interactive and the next was not.
But is it advertising?
The sort of work on show will be familiar to people in the industry. I say ‘industry’ – I have no idea what industry you are in. I am a creative director of a large New York ad agency, I have no idea what industry I’m in. But if you frequent degree shows in London and New York, such as the RCA interactive course or ITP at NYU, or keep a keen eye on advertising awards you will see some favourites such as BakerTweet by Poke here, updated to display fresh croissants from the MoMA cafe; Tweenbots, the breakthrough piece of work from ITP, which has a cute robot wandering around Washington Square Park; and Wilderness Downtown, the gongtastic collaboration between Google and Arcade Fire.
An oft-overheard query at MoMA is the bewildered question, ‘Yes, but is it art?’ In the case of BakerTweet and Wilderness Downtown the more pertinent question might be, ‘But is it advertising?’ I don’t think the Wilderness Downtown project should have won at Cannes, D&AD and everywhere else. It’s not that it’s not great work. It is. I just don’t think it’s real advertising. When the client and the agency are the same thing, they are using their own technology and team up with a cool band, I think that’s very different from a TV spot or app for a bank or washing powder. If Wilderness Downtown is eligible, what is to stop Damien Hirst entering his diamond skull into creative awards? He is the client and the agency. He is promoting himself. Selling it for $50m is certainly a more effective ROI than a gold Effie.
It makes more sense to see Wilderness Downtown in a setting like MoMA than an ad show. Perhaps the friend of the security guard I saw who was using Chrome to search for a West Indian restaurant rather than watching the Arcade Fire music video was a better ad for Google anyway?
The work that I like here the most is the simple stuff. There is a tendency for digital folk to over- complicate things. The British artist Chris O’Shea does some really nice outdoor work. His Hand From Above that shows people in an English shopping centre being pointed at with a big finger never fails to amuse me, and it seemed to do the same for the New Yorkers. It reminds me a little of the work we used to do at Dare for Lynx – tickle a girl or blow her clothes off. Simple cause and effect stuff rather than all these pixels flying flashily all over the shop. On occasions there are complex pieces where the end result is simple; Konstantin Datz’s Braille Rubik’s Cube, for example, is a lovely idea. But while the MoMA website for the show is an excellent resource, listing all the work, it wouldn’t have made it through the first round of creative reviews with me – too busy. The art critic from the New York Times loved it though. Best to make up your own mind.
Put a QR code on it
When you go into some exhibitions there are warning signs about strobe lights, there should be one here about QR codes. They are everywhere. There is a QR code on every piece of work and there are several pieces of work that are QR codes themselves – or ‘semacode’ as Bernhard Hopfengärtner called the giant pattern he had mown into a field so that it was only viewable from the sky.What to make of these ugly little things? At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a better way to grab information with your phone but – here we go again – is it art? When cubism first came along people thought that was an ugly mess. And when any Tom, Dick or Harry could buy a Banksy print in Selfridges for $50 many years ago, we all thought that was that. I’m not really suggesting that QR codes are today’s Picasso – I’ll wager they are not – but it’s a funny old game.
A reflection of the industry
This is not an exhibition to go to if you want answers. If you want to see how digital is becoming more human then I think it has some interesting angles like the Animal Superpowers virtual reality piece for kids. What is often lacking in our field is emotion. We are constantly told that digital work lacks narrative and people working in this space are not storytellers. This criticism tends to come from ‘traditional’ ad folk, as if a 30-second spot involving characters selling a product is somehow de facto a story. There are themes in Talk to Me; Objects, Bodies, Life, City, Worlds and Double Entendre, but to be honest I think that’s more of a herding tactic than an artistic philosophy.
Actually, Talk To Me is in many ways a perfect reflection of the chaos of the ad industry and of life itself. Frankly, it’s a mess. But the industry is a mess, the economy is a mess, the world is a mess. You can walk into the exhibition, throw your hands up in the air and wibble, ‘but what does it all mean?’ or you can embrace the chaos, feed on it and go make something equally intriguing.
James Cooper is chief creative innovation officer at JWT in New York. Talk to Me is on at MoMA in New York until November 7. More information at the dedicated site, moma.org/talktome, where details on all of the 194 exhibits on show can be found