The Consumers of the Future - Wellington
The Consumers of the Future is a commissioned project by White Fungus for Adam Art Gallery, accompanying the exhibitions We Will Work With You! Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998 and Martha Rosler, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.
The Consumers of the Future explores publicity as a condition and a material. Taking a critical look at the Wellington City Council’s “Creative Capital” branding strategy, the project includes a series of three posters, remixing Wellington City Council publicity materials together with a quote by the current New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Merrill Lynch currency trader, John Key. Speaking to the the television show Campbell Live in 2007, Key said, “Our children are important... They’re the Consumers of the Future.” The project also involves a new publication which will be available for free at the gallery. Copies can be purchased here.
The contemporary era, we believe, can be best described as a full-blown state of publicity. From our politics, to education, to art itself, publicity is the defining mechanism in their distribution, dissemination and reception. In an age of austerity, one area which cannot receive cutbacks is that of publicity. Furthermore, all budgeting decisions need to be considered in relation to their publicity effect. The Consumers of the Future explores publicity as a condition and a material.
In his 2002 BBC documentary series, Century of the Self, Adam Curtis charts the development of Publicity in the 20th century as it was used by corporations and governments alike. In the film, Curtis chronicles the little-known figure of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who was the first to apply psychological and psychoanalytical techniques to “public relations”, a term he coined as it was more acceptable in the civilian context than “propaganda”. Bernays worked for Woodrow Wilson during World War One and was instrumental in building the public perception that the US’ involvement was about bringing democracy to all of Europe. Amazed at the success of his own campaign, Bernays wondered how these techniques could be applied to a peace-time situation.
In his seminal book, Propaganda, Bernays regarded advertisers as mere pleaders. The practitioner of publicity in contrast would create or appropriate events dramatizing new concepts and perceptions. Bernays, like his uncle, viewed libidinal desire and instinctual drive as inherently dangerous forces. But through these publicity techniques, these forces could be harnessed and channelled into the operations of production and consumption, generating profit for his corporate clients. Bernays had a utopian vision of an ordered society, made cohesive through the channelling and fulfilling of desire through consumerism and mass production.
One of Bernays’ most successful campaigns was his promotion of women’s smoking in the 1920s. Bernays’ client the American Tobacco Company wanted to increase cigarette sales but faced a major obstacle in the taboo against women smoking in public. Women could even be arrested for lighting up in public. Bernays sent a group of models to the 1920 Easter Parade in New York and instructed them, when he gave the signal, to light up Lucky Strike cigarettes. He then informed the media that a group of women’s rights marchers would be lighting up “Torches of Freedom” at the parade. The models lit up and the press cameras were ready. The intervention was a media sensation and the number of women smokers immediately began to rise. The taboo was eventually overcome.
In terms of New Zealand cities, Wellington stands out as having perhaps the most distinctive and coherent publicity branding strategy. This approach had its genesis in the slogan “Absolutely Positively Wellington” which debuted in 1991 and continues to this day. The campaign was prompted by sluggish advertising sales for Wellington Newspapers Ltd in the recession following the stock market crash of 1987. Wellington Newspapers offered free space to advertising moguls Saatchi & Saatchi to run an uplifting campaign. “It was post-crash and New Zealand was in the deepest of depressions really,” said Kim Wicksteed, former General Manager at Saatchi and Saatchi. “He [a manager at The Evening Post] said; ‘We can give you some space, but give us some positive messages to put in the space’. So that’s how it happened... Then a phenomenal thing happened. The city started to get a whole lot of pride in itself. We flew flags and wore T-shirts. It was just amazing.”
But Wellington’s publicity culture reached full bloom under the mayor Kerry Prendergast and her implementation of the “Creative Capital” brand. The success of this strategy can be seen in its top down presence in the fabric of Wellington cultural and economic life, from Massey University’s adoption of the “Creative Campus” to a failed attempt to install a “Wellywood” sign facing incoming traffic to the airport. Prendergast and her colourful outfits became ubiquitous at nearly all prominent Wellington arts events, as she became a master of the photo-op. The mayor delivered speech after speech touting Wellington’s “Creative Capital” credentials, claiming that they gave the capital a competitive advantage over other New Zealand cities.
But the reality of Wellington for artists seems so far removed from this “Creative Capital” vision. Between 2004 and 2007, the Wellington City Council demolished the city’s historic upper Cuba Street precinct, home to many artists and creative people, to make way for a motorway extension. Grassroots infrastructure that had enabled this creativity, to which Prendergast staked her brand, was systematically ripped out. The City Council-managed Wellington Arts Centre would fill some of the void created by these evictions and demolitions, but what was lost was an independent artist community and support structure which had developed organically over the previous decades. And yet Prendergast, aided by the city’s one newspaper, The Dominion Post, was very successful in creating her political brand. She tapped into the citizens’ desire to see Wellington in a certain way, and in many ways helped to create a successful fantasy. The feeling of ‘creativity’ was so much more compelling than actually assessing in any critical detail the reality of the needs of the local arts community.
The Consumers of the Future examines this state of publicity in a series of three posters which remix the publicity materials of the Wellington City Council with a 2007 quote by the current New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Merrill Lynch currency trader, John Key. Speaking to the television show Campbell Live, as then leader of the opposition, Key said, “Our children are important... they’re the consumers of the future.” Amongst the publicity materials drawn upon in these posters is an image of Wellington’s Odlins stock exchange sign, which cost the city’s ratepayers $480,000. The Consumers of the Future follows on from a series of publications, posters and events White Fungus has produced over the past decade dealing with grass roots political issues in Wellington. The Consumers of the Future critiques the state of publicity as the implementation of a weak utopia. It posits publicity as a key terrain or battleground for art today.
White Fungus, October 2012