There has been much smarty-pants speculation on what the Internet and our increased access to information means to society. Whenever I see these bloated "Here's what it all means, children" type essays, I get a little embarrassed inside. I know that in a few years' time, these articles will seem ridiculously pompous and out of touch -- like 19th century articles claiming that the telegraph will make human speech irrelevant.
I get the feeling that, like me, a lot of people just get a big kick out of emailing each otherbaby animal pictures, cool videos of dancing bears and lobster claws, and certain teen wizards in newer, fleshier roles. Unfortunately, this love of short-attention-span fun leaves us vulnerable to newscaster quips and flashy infographics -- shiny stand-ins for real news or really exciting events. Like bobble heads. Nobody actually likes those. Or Super Bowl ads. In the week leading up to last sunday's big game, I came across several actual news stories on this riveting nugget of current events: Extra! Sports events are often paired with advertising! I guess that makes them similar to, oh, pretty much every single thing on the planet.
Into this swirl of an increasingly advert-laden environment drops Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' current exhibit,Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics. The show chronicles the look and feel of advertising South of the Border, as seen in murals, street parties, luchadores, and wheat paste flyers. Instead of slick, highly processed campaigns, individual artisans create hand-drawn masterpieces boasting anything from butcher shops,to car parts and public safety announcements. The painters often draft their work quickly and on the spot, so the art has all the charm of strange proportions and slightly wonky draftsmanship.
Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics runs through March 4, 2007 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The absence of an industry to mastermind the ads means they rely on everyday imagery to catch attention. Symbols are used in a familiar, yet somehow still awkward, context -- like the use of pregnant women to give a product the feel of "virtue," even if that product is women's lingerie. Since the "advertisers" are on the same level as the consumers, their tactics are incredibly direct. Ads for car parts show just that -- straightforward paintings of the objects that read more like technical manuals in all their intricate detail. Can you remember the last time an ad for a product just simply showed you the thing with no bells and whistles?
But this matter-of-factness can also be uncomfortable (read: hilarious) for American eyes used to the sparkly illusions of Madison Avenue. For instance, we'd never be able to handle a butcher shop ad featuring an angry, pants-wearing chicken slaughtering a smaller, terrified, pants-less chicken, or a standing pig stirring a big pot of human soup. And as these weird, wonderful little paintings point out, that's a shame.
If there's one thing Americans can relate to, though, it's the co-opting of pop culture to push consumer goods. With Mexico's laissez-faire copyright laws, celebrities and popular characters show up pretty much anywhere to make a sale -- like the pizzeria sign where R2-D2 delivers a steaming pie. These ads possess all the novelty and appeal that corporate ad execs try so desperately to manufacture in their endless rotation of talking dogs or painfully cute kids with lisps. But these ideas succeed because they aren't studied or sly, and carry no sense of a six-figure deal lurking behind in the background.
Sensacional! is also a refreshing example of the creative potential of a gallery show. For one, most of the pieces are street photographs or anonymous reproductions. This frees the accompanying information panels to give earnest and amazingly non-condescending insight into Mexican culture. No egos to soothe, or oeuvres to reference. But the curating also has a definite tongue-in-cheek tone. One video was described as "kick-ass" in the same sentence that described rival videos as "insipid." Curators designed interactive elements to recreate the feeling of randomly encountering these pieces on a street. A video about taxicab art invites viewers to sit and watch from a car seat.
But mostly, I see Sensacional! as a golden opportunity for the general improvement of life on Earth. There's no way to deny the simple elegance of a churro ad featuring a man looking sad while a thought bubble over his head shows him smiling as he munches on, guess what, a tasty churro! Is there really more to advertising than that? Can we just close the book on cartoon bees with annoying accents, beer-drinking birds that scream "Waaaassssssup," and K-Fed?
Okay, maybe keep K-Fed around long enough for him to flame out in a blaze of Pay-Per-View, WWF, eBay auctions of personal items, and Made-for-TV movie glory. I'd like to see that. But let's take some of the power away from advertisers in suits and focus groups making billions. Advertising can be art, but that usually happens when it focuses on communicating with people based on what they know, need, and like -- not what obnoxious pandering can distract them and their pocketbooks for the longest amount of time. No matter what any disco-dancing monkey with a love of mac'n'cheese will tell you.
* Editorial note: After writing this review, it came to my attention that the publisher of Sensacional! the book, is an imprint distributed by Chronicle Books, where I currently work a few days a week.