I'd like to welcome our newest contributor, Jenny Bowen, who's worked in the arts from a variety of angles. She'll be writing about how artistic culture is changing in the face of our current Breaking Time. This first piece is on Microsoft's increasingly aggressive attempts to worm its way into the street art scene.
For the first time since 1987 Microsoft has redesigned its corporate logo. While Apple continues to push forward as the most profitable business in the world, maintaining an image to meet the needs of hipsters and executives alike, Microsoft has patiently been biding its rebranding energies for nearly 25 years.
But this post isn't about open-source freedom versus quality control sleekness: this is about advertising crossing the line into art.
Recently news broke that New York City and Los Angeles started seeing a new game of street art about town. Thing is, this isn't art: it's advertising mimicking art.
In June, Microsoft unveiled a new design for its Surface tablets; an incredibly sleek computer running the new Windows 8 OS. While the tablets aren't set to debut until October, that hasn't prevented Microsoft from taking on an advertising campaign that has already drawn much attention around the country and online. All around these cities "street art" is popping up on walls, depicting a rectangle with the word Surface and a keyboard painted below.
Microsoft's only comment on the situation is "no comment." But the company has a long history of trying to advertise on the heels of the street art movement.
In 2010 the company chalked stencils on sidewalks of their then-new Windows Phone 7 in New York City and San Francisco. They were criticized, but not punished, by the cities. Some artists complained that while they're arrested for doing similar guerilla-style art, a giant compnay got nothing more than a verbal warning; yet another sign that money is power and corporations can break the rules with impunity.
In 2002, Microsoft took to the streets of New York with a sticker decal of the MSN butterfly logo. They were fined $50 and told to clean up all of the decals they had adhered to sidewalks, stop signs, doorways, traffic signals, and public art throughout the city. Fifty dollars, some stickers, and hiring a few people to "tag" the city is a remarkably cheap advertising campaign for a company whose net worth is roughly $230 billion.
Since Microsoft won't take any responsibility for this most recent attempt to merge their brand with street art savviness, we can't say whether these property owners were compensated for their wall space. What upsets property owners is a fine line in street art and graffiti. If a property gets tagged with a new Banksy piece then its value is increased, but if tagged with a bad lettering throw-up it becomes a crime. Usually compensation is provided for the space used in advertising, but in this case that's still an unknown.
Some circular logic applies when debating the difference between street art and advertising; one of the original notions of graffiti is that the world is 'tagged' in corporate logos anyway, and taking one's personal symbol to the streets was a means to even the game. So much of what one finds in sticker tags are advertising for some band, website, or subculture that wants to get noticed. Even when done with artistic merit, isn't such self-promotion straying away from art?
But it's one thing if companies like Microsoft want to pay homage to the creativity of the movement; to attempt to mask its latest ad campaign under the guise of street art is insulting to the actual artists working in this medium.
If cities aren't able to control or confront the issue — and the slaps on the wrists Microsoft has received don't indicate they can — what is to stop the infringement of purely capitalist motives from continuing to move in on this relatively ungoverned creative terrain? Street art is viewed as an exercise of liberty by the subcultures that practice it, though as Banksy once stated: "If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal."
Still, street artists do bring out real social criticism, causing us to stop and think for a moment when our paths cross with the statements they place on any available public space. This couldn't be more different from the corporate approach, which makes Microsoft's increasing use of this method extremely ironic — and problematic.