Tuesday, 12:00am
6 February 2007

Cognitive dissonance (Web only)

Martin Firrell’s work for Curzon Cinemas places public art in a commercial space

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for eyemagazine.com

In an age of ubiquitous publicity, it can be hard to experience a cultural event without preconceptions. When we see an exhibition or film, or pick up a novel, we usually have at least some idea of what we are about to encounter, gleaned from reviews, previews, interviews and promotional copy. This careful preliminary sampling makes perfect sense when our time and money are at stake. It does, of course, rule out the possibility of being caught unawares by a message and having to find your bearings without external aids.

Sometimes, though, advertising and design can be the source of cognitive dissonance precisely because they are not the main event. This happened to me recently at a showing of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, about the Dutch resistance in the Second World War. Waiting for the film to start, the audience was suddenly confronted on screen by the statement: ‘Globalisation can only work where tastes can be globalised, where we’re ready to accept less difference, less variety.’ These words were accompanied by an insistently rhythmic metallic hiss, creating an oppressive feeling of urgency and tension.

My immediate assumption was that the language of the anti-globalisation protesters had been co-opted to sell jeans or trainers and that the punchline would soon make this clear. As the ‘commercial’ continued, this seemed unlikely. It was surprisingly wordy: a miniature essay broken down into screen-sized captions, which jittered anxiously above gritty backgrounds surrounded by darkness. Each phrase presses closer and closer before a new one replaces it. The slogans, which cast black shadows, look like warning signs hanging on a vertical bar, as though the words are being crucified, and the mood is heavy and menacing – almost apocalyptic. The claustrophobic intensity suggests invasion and colonisation.

Part of the way through, a deeper note sounds, full of foreboding, and the sentences give way to a series of points: ‘Security is not liberty. Wealth is not freedom. Control is not strength.’ Confirmation that this is no ordinary ad comes at the end where it says: ‘Martin Firrell, public artist for Curzon Cinemas’. Curzon runs five art-house cinemas in the London area, and Firrell, an artist based in the city, is renowned for text pieces like this. Even for those who don’t know his projects, the moment of stimulating perplexity has passed.

Firrell operates in an area of public art made prominent in the 1980s by Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer – Holzer’s sharp-edged ‘truisms’, for instance, have been displayed on public signs everywhere from Times Square to Piccadilly Circus. But neither artist holds any copyright on the use of slogans to communicate in public spaces. The device is basic to all forms of advertising and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be turned to any use a communicator can think up and find an outlet for. Firrell has a background in advertising and he used to be a brand consultant with the Martin Firrell and William Maugham Partnership.

Whether the Curzon project is effective communication in this setting is open to question. For anyone with concerns about these issues, it offers useful encouragement; it is good to know that others feel the same way, and support from an ‘official’ source carries some weight. If there really were audience members who had never previously thought about globalisation, terrorism and the need for difference to maintain a healthy society, then a portentous announcement lasting just a couple of minutes can only take them so far.

While the combined effect of words, visuals and soundtrack is powerful, the language on its own lacks resonance. Firrell observes that ‘Shopping is not happiness’. This is certainly direct, except that Kruger got there long ago with the more suggestive and memorable ‘I shop therefore I am’. Firrell says that ‘our ideas of beauty – our tastes – are created by commerce’. Holzer already has it covered with the elegant formulation: ‘Money creates taste’. Many will support Firrell’s aims, but his lines are too obvious and declarative to embed themselves deeply in your head: telling you what to think, rather than allowing an element of ambiguity and letting you mull it over, as in Kruger’s ‘Your manias become science’ or Holzer’s ‘Protect me from what I want’ – phrases that condense whole worlds of thought.

The key question is whether this kind of public art ‘subvertisement’ (to use Adbusters’ term) can ever reach a mainstream audience. These initiatives will need to break out of the metropolitan art house and culture sector and play nationwide in the multiplexes that most people visit.