Post Digital Display. Brandscaping as artistic strategy
by Stefanie Marlene Wenger
(This talk was held at the symposium "Art and Branding in Hypercapitalism" on 1st December 2018)
The main element of the display is a bed of moss that enters the gallery space from one corner and takes up almost one third of the whole room. The products of the Luxury Brand SANKE are carefully arranged in that setting on pedestals or mounted on the wall. On a big screen on the wall the SANKE infomercial videos can be watched. The products of the beauty line as well as the Beanies can be purchased online or directly in the gallery. The display is very minimalistic, following the less is more concept, materials and objects in it are carefully chosen and arranged. They link to the core concept of the brand which is the raw and unprocessed experience of nature, of a northern European forest atmosphere that is humid, green and exhilarant.
SANKE is “A brand communicating as an artist” to quote the British artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas who used this phrase to describe his own project New Eelam. It is a hybrid between an art project and brand or it is simply both, since the difference between artwork and commercial product has become even blurrier in the last couple of years, although they have always been closely linked.
What I would like to talk about in my presentation is how and why SANKE – and other examples – use the display in the physical gallery space to put forward a brand identity. I will look at displays that use visual merchandising as artistic strategy. Visual merchandising is the term that in the retail industry describes the design at the point of sale: Interior design, lighting, air quality, sound, the presentation of goods, shop windows and signage are part of the visual merchandising, which is also referred to as store design, store scenography, or brandscaping – my favorite and most fitting in this context – meaning the organization of physical space as an extension or representation of a brand.
Why do I call this a post digital display? The term “post digital” has come up quite recently to describe contemporary tendencies of artistic production that takes into account the extensive transformational cultural processes that digitalization has brought to us. Digital production and dissemination technologies are no longer seen as an alternative but as a basis of cultural praxis, the digital is no longer a separate sphere, as Katia Kwastek puts it. In contrast to the net.art of the 1990ies or even earlier examples of media art, post digital artworks, although deeply rooted in and informed by the virtual world and its aesthetics, show great interest in the physical exhibition space. The display design is not only the space to encounter the work, but as Andreas mentioned before, even more vital, the digital image of the display enables the work to circulate on the net.
As I use it, the term post digital is a temporal marker that describes a contemporary phenomenon that appeared roughly around 2013 and peaked in the 2016 Berlin Biennale. The BB9, curated by the New York based collective DIS, saw a wide range of artworks that were designed as brands and whose display was taking the form of the visual merchandising of that brand. I would like to mention two examples of that exhibition that, similar to SANKE, are putting forward a brand identity as artworks.
The first is New Eelamby Christopher Kulendran Thomas, who I already mentioned before. New Eelam is a Start Up that promotes an alternative housing model with shared home ownership for apartments in booming cities around the world – a co-operative housing on global scale. The concept of the Start Up is presented in an infomercial video that is embedded in a display design with banners, design furniture and carpeted floors that communicate a brand identity that caters to global nomads that are accustomed to certain aesthetics.The informercial for example is clearly taking up Apple rheorics and imagery – the protagonist is a young, non-white woman of the creative class moving around in beautifully designed homes and urban settings The video is shown on Ipads in a counter like set up with barstools on the backdrop of a pastel colored painting and Monstera plant – a situation reminiscent of an Apple Store interior. The other corner of the display is designed as a living room /lounge area that mimics the strange mixture of private/public atmosphere of a 25hour hotel.
The second example I want to talk about is Débora Delmars MINT project. Right at the entrance hall of Akademie der Künste in Berlin the visitors encountered a juice bar, whose simple wooden furniture and uniform green corporate design of the wallpaper, potted plants and logo fitted seamlessly into the image of the gentrified, healthy and organic café of hipster neighborhoods around the world. The brand name MINT is an acronym for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – emerging markets and developing economies that often export the fruits that are then turned into the overpriced juices.Additionally to the presentation at Akademie der Künste, Débora Delmar was featured in a solo show at Galerie Duve in Berlin. At the gallery, the artist installed the Headquarters of MINT taking up the same plants, green walls and the refrigerator of the juice bar but adding more elements such as designer tables with few objects carefully positioned.
These are just two of the many examples that were dealing with branding and Brandscaping at BB9. Many more could be added, but it is not the aim of this paper to give an extensive list of these examples, rather I want to ask the following questions:
What is the characteristic of these displays?
How do they communicate a brand identity? And maybe most importantlyWhy has the phenomena of using brandscaping as artistic strategy become so prevalent in contemporary art?
I will elaborate on these questions in three parts.
1. Target Group
What all of the three examples have in common, is the fact that they speak to a very specific group of recipients. Delmars project is catering to the desires of people that aspire to a lifestyle of health and sustainability, the so called “LOHAS” that are a defined consumer group in marketing.This becomes apparent firstly through the nature of the product itself, a fruit juice that in recent years has become the epitome of a healthy and fitness oriented lifestyle of millennials. Secondly through the design of the display that is taking up the rough-style of cafés in gentrified areas around the world.
Likewise, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ New Eelam is tailored to a clear target group of well-trained digital natives that are self-employed nomads working on projects in the creative or entrepreneurial sector. Also here, this becomes apparent through content and form: the idea of the project itself, namely to have no fixed residence in one city but to be travelling from one metropole to another on a weekly if not daily basis is only possible for a very small and elite group of people in very specific jobs and with no familial responsibilities. This lifestyle is mirrored, as mentioned above, in the design of the display that references interiors that this specific consumer group recognizes immediately as familiar environment.
In the case of SANKE, I would argue that the two groups of LOHAS and digital natives are both addressed. SANKE is speaking to a crowd that wishes to be LOHAS, but is then distracted by their internet state of mind, hence the slogan “This Could Be You…..But you forgot how/ But you can’t stop scrolling”. The sustainability aspect in SANKE is taken to another level, since the products consist of very basic ingredients that are not processed industrially to keep them as close as possible to their natural form. SANKE is speaking to a sensible and aware consumer group that is interested in the connectedness with nature and open to a primitive, almost shamanic ritualism. The luxury comes with the rareness of such a condition in todays post digital society. SANKE is taking the downsides of our digital native society, namely the loss of connection to nature, as its starting point and promises to restore this bond. Also in this example, the brand identity is transported through the products – spring water, snail slime, river clay and algea – and through the moss display that references the forest.
2. Less is more is luxury
In all three mentioned examples, a concept of luxury and exclusiveness is conveyed. Notably, these concepts of luxury vary greatly from conceptions of luxury of previous generations such as fancy cars, diamond jewelry and yachts. Expensive goods and materials are not the center of concern. Luxury in these examples is connected to more abstract values. The credo is to strip it down, to own less to have more freedom (New Eelam), to promote one single but high quality product to stay healthy (MINT) and to come back to our connectedness with nature as a basic need of humans (SANKE).
The less is more concept clearly becomes visible in the displays as well. Pastel colors and consciously chosen furniture are key for New Eelam: Thomas works with Berlin based design studio New Tendencywho place themselves in the tradition of Bauhaus. The visual communication is by Manuel Bürger, who worked for transmediale, HeK and artist like Olia Lialina und Aram Bartoll, meaning that he is trained in the post digital aesthetics.New Eelam has taken different shapes of displays in different institutions, but it is always immediately recognizable since the elements return, the reduced color scheme stays the same, materials vary slightly but stay in the same vocabulary of a temporary stage like fair architecture.
The same can be seen with Débora Delmars MINT project. Apart from a very clear corporate Identity that is mainly communicated with the grass-green color of the walls and decoration items, the tables at the MINT Headquarters reference the presentation of goods in high end retail stores such as Andreas Murkudis, Acne Studios or Beige Tokyo.
The display of Apparel and other goods in these retail stores is extremely reduced, rendering the single items an almost museum like touch. Notably also the architecture of these stores is quite unique, in the case of Murkudis it is a former industrial hall with very high ceilings, that would often be used to house contemporary art spaces, also Beige Tokyo is more white cube than retail store. The stainless steel interior of Acne Studios is rarely seen in retail stores and therefore renders the special quality of these high end shops.
Looking at the examples, we can see that SANKE aligns itself with these high fashion displays, the New Nordic Luxury exhibition display being the most radically minimalistic of the three examples mentioned.
To investigate the question why a minimalistic display of goods correlates with an increase in value, I would like to take Gernot Böhme’s concept of “atmospheres” as a theoretical background. Böhme explains this correlation with the observation that in the “Aesthetic Economy” as he calls cultural capitalism, our needs have become desires. While needs can be pleased, desires never cease to exist put create hunger for more desires to keep the surplus economy going. Hence, economy steps into new fields that can be monetized such as leisure, entertainment and private spheres. This development leads to the fact that nearly all realms of life today are designed to be aesthetically appealing in order to be marketed and monetized. Be it your holidays, a city or a new product – everything is staged to create an aesthetic value, to communicate a certain mood, to put forward a certain atmosphere. According to Böhme, the exchange value dominates the utility value, meaning that the aesthetics of a product has become more important than its actual function.
Coming back to our example of the store interiors it becomes clear that these brands use the minimal design to create this memorable atmosphere for customers. Neat, clutter-free surfaces, a harmonious color play of furniture and walls and a well curated pre-selection of goods that they are willing to buy out of desire and not necessity is the contemporary understanding of luxury. In an oversaturated society, people become very selective in the choice of goods that they buy, since these articles then are not less but increasingly more significant in the demonstration of social status. It is as thought they would say “Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!”
This means that we regard our possessions, or in this case tellingly the conscious lack thereof, as part of ourselves – psychologist Russel Belk coined this phenomenon with the term “Extended Self” already in 1988.In his article “Possessions and Extended Self” he examines the relationship of possessions and sense of self from a consumer behavior perspective. Although some points of this article should definitely be revised (extremely chauvinistic) the core point of the understanding of Extended Self can still be applied to current examples of post digital displays. The Extended Self can not only to be understood in the literal sense as in material extension, but also in symbolic extension of self, namely people, places, brands, lifestyles. Belk argues that our possessions help us to learn, define and remember who we are. The concept of Extended Self in not only applied to individuals but also accounts for collective groups. I mainly mention Belk here, because I think the concept of Extended Self might be helpful in understanding why artists are so intrigued in creating consumer products. I would argue that it is exactly because they offer a meticulous perspective on the Extendend Self of a contemporary society.
Naturally, many other theorists could be quoted that elaborated on contemporary socio-economic status after industrial capitalism and mass production – namely what we have come to call cultural capitalism or hypercapitalism. I would like to mention only one more position that I find especially helpful for my case.
The sociologist Andreas Reckwitz speaks about the “economy of singularities”, whereas singularity doesn’t stand for technological singularity but describes the concept of late modernism – he doesn’t use the term post digital – of a structural change in society from a hegemony of the universal to the social logic of the unique.In the “economy of singularities” the uniqueness or singularity of a product or service defines its cultural value. This process of “singularisation” as he calls it is not only a simple hedonism and self-optimization of the individual, but it has become a societal expectation.Individuals are expected to develop a profile for their professional as well as their private life that sets them apart from others. This profile has to be well curated and authentically performed and attractive.
This concept of the uniqueness of a product or an experience goes hand in hand with Böhmes concept of constant staging or “Inszenierung” of every aspect of life, thus the minimal displays of these retail stores are clearly a product of these socio-cultural and economic dynamics.
As we have seen in the examples, art no longer pretends to exist outside the realms of the aesthetic economy. On the contrary, a total affirmation of economic strategies has become the crux of these post digital displays. Indeed, Reckwitz notes that it is questionable if artworks can be set apart from other cultural consumer goods in an age of all-embracing uniqueness.This affirmation is also what these artworks are mostly criticized for: their actual lack of distance and critical mindset towards branding, which brings me to my third and last point:
3. The Notion of Critique: a post ironic state of mind?
Allegations against post digital artworks and their displays usually focus on the flatness and fixation on surfaces which apparently leads to a lack of depth and complexity of the works. This argument is put forward, for example in David Joselits Texte zur Kunstreview of Berlin Biennale 9.In this short text Joselit accuses the artists of only appropriating branding structures on a superficial level while ignoring underlying complex structures of Marketing processes. I would like to quote Joselit in a full sentence here, to understand his frustration:
«What I find disturbing is the shallow engagement with branding that so many exhibiting artists demonstrate, where the “look” of corporate speech is mimetically reproduced in the absence of any deeper engagement with its quasi-imperial structure of accumulating and sustaining attention over time.»What becomes apparent here is that Joselit expects these artworks to formulate criticism against consumerists market structures, that art has to act as an antagonistic force to the market. So, the prevailing and somehow also annoying question that has to be addressed: Are these artworks critical of neo-capitalist market structures, or are they not? Are these displays that reference Brandscapes a purely ironic gesture? Or are they post-ironic, meaning that they surpass a purely appropriational character and become something more serious. As you might have guessed, I would argue for the latter. I would argue that SANKE cannot be seen as purely ironic or satirical. I am not denying that ironic traits but there is also a genuine caring about environmental issues, about fair and ecological production and awareness of resources in the statement SANKE communicates as a brand. To my opinion, this is what sets contemporary artists brands apart from earlier investigations by artists in this topic – say for example the Picture Generation or Appropriation Art. In all of the mentioned examples the artists are part of the target group they are addressing themselves, meaning their brands are creating lifestyles that they genuinely identify with. To be purely ironic is not enough anymore, we have come to live in a post digital, post-ironic world.
Keeping this in mind, I think to look at these examples in the dichotomy of either seeing them as commercially functioning brands or as artworks that have to function outside of the commercial marketing system is far too shorthanded. If we compare them to other retail brands, as Joselit does, they will fail and look like “pale imitations of much more sophisticated commercial art”. Artist brands are not driven by the imperative to constantly react to changing market conditions, meaning they do not have to be profitable. All of the discussed examples never denied to be artworks, they are first and foremost created by artists and are presented and received in an institutional art context.
Having Reckwitz’s argument in mind that artworks are no longer clearly distinguishable from commercial goods, because everything put out has to comply to the rules of aesthetic economy, I dare to suggest that maybe also the question of market criticality has become obsolete. Maybe we need to let go of the very modernist idea of art and market as being antagonists and rather search for a new vocabulary, post-ironic being one suggested term to describe this kind of artistic production, that I very gladly discuss with you.
Thank you very much for your attention!
Kunstforum" class="redactor-autoparser-object">https://bb9.berlinbiennale.de/... International, Bd. 242 Postdigital 1, 2016, p. 70.
Kapitalismus, Suhrkamp, 2016 und Atmosphäre, Suhrkamp, 2013
Russel" class="redactor-autoparser-object">https://www.theguardian.com/li... W. Belk, Possessions and Extended Self, 1988, Journal of Consumer Research
AndreasReckwitz, Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, 2017, p. 9.
Reckwitz, Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, 2017, p. 9.
Reckwitz, Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, 2017, p. 139.