Good artists borrow, great artists steal

In their pursuit of new forms of engagement with audiences, ad agencies continue to look to media artists for ideas and inspiration

We’ve all heard the saying ‘property is theft’, first coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1840. I’m appropriating it for this issue’s column. I’m not just stealing it – I’m going to jazz it up a bit, improve it a little, make it my own. I’m going to change ‘property’ is theft to ‘creativity’ is theft.

All artists and designers know this to be true, that creativity is a form of daylight robbery, that the creative process is never entirely original, and that there are always references to, or borrowings from, prior art created by other people. Artists and advertisers have had a long and fruitful (and sometimes fractious) relationship based on the exchange of creative ideas. Where art goes, advertising follows. Artists are sensitive about advertisers making free with their creative property and this sensitivity is particularly acute among media artists – artists who work with new
and emerging technologies.

Media artists tend to push the boundaries of what you can do with technology and, in doing so, happen upon forms of engagement which ad agencies find irresistible. The oft-repeated scenario sees the artist post a video of new work online, someone in an agency sees it, realises it’s just the thing to put in that client pitch – and the client falls in love with the idea.

And the resulting debate – like the furore surrounding Chris O’Shea’s Hand From Above installation and Space150’s very similarly executed project for Forever21 – probably isn’t going to go away. As media and interactive artists explore new forms of engagement, the solutions they come up with are more and more relevant to agencies trying to keep up creatively. Media artists are increasingly being referenced in agency creative sessions. It’s no coincidence that Nexus has launched Nexus Interactive Arts to represent media artists and bring their work to agencies and clients in the right way (CR Feb).

So whose work gets referenced the most in agencies at the moment? Chris O’Shea has got to be a contender – Hand From Above demonstrated the awesome power of digital outdoor to engage passers-by in public spaces.

Another favourite is Golan Levin, who for more than 15 years has been exploring the links between nonverbal communication and interactive play in a series of works that are fresh, innovative and fun to engage with. And very much on the way up is Zach Lieberman, co-founder of OpenFrameworks, whose work with computer-aided vision hints at broader creative opportunities in using cameras as the primary interactive input – whether in creating the ToyotaIQ typeface, or empowering disabled artists with the EyeWriter.

But perhaps the single most referenced artist in ad agency creative sessions is Jonathan Harris and, in particular, his project We Feel Fine, which since 2005 has attempted to gauge the emotional state of the web by harvesting instances of the phrases ‘I feel’ or ‘I am feeling’ from blogs and recording them alongside an image from the same site. Up to 20,000 ‘feelings’ are collected each day and the result is an ongoing database of several million statements from all over the world, that can be arranged across a number of demographic slices.

The reason that Harris’s work is shown so much in agencies is probably down to the creative industry’s preoccupation with social media: we know it’s important and we know we’re not quite getting it. Harris says that We Feel Fine is “a two-way mirror, where viewers simultaneously experience a God-like voyeurism (spying on the feelings of others) and a bashful vulnerability (realising their own words and pictures are in there, too). When these two feelings mix together the hope is that they produce a kind of humbling empathy, demonstrating that individual experiences are actually universal.” Harris’s work offers a glimmer of optimism: that crowd-sourcing isn’t just a creative cop out, but at its best can deliver a powerful emotional connection and tell the old story – the human story – in a new way.

We never really own ideas, we just look after them for a while. As Jean-Luc Godard had it, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And it goes both ways. Wieden + Kennedy Portland’s Old Spice TV ad has been shamelessly copied by countless admirers, including Sesame Street and The Sun newspaper. Nobody seems particularly bothered.

So here’s another idea – stolen from W+K’s Iain Tait. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a league table of those digital artists and artworks most referenced in ad agency creative sessions? It would give us a sense of where the creative market is right now: who’s up, who’s down and who’s on the money. Yes, good idea, Iain. Cheers.

Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in London

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