What’s wrong with being simple?

I watched a marketing slideshow and was infuriated by how it started off by apparently being anti-consumerism and then finished by just asking you to like brands. Then I watched Exit Through The Giftshop and got really mad over a bit about Guantanamo Bay. So this would be a rant.

A screenshot from The Big Lebowski with the caption 'Like the brands that entertain you more'
Every time I saw this pic on the old twimii’s homepage I’d think ‘oh no! my blog is challenging me to a fight… and I think it’s going to win…’

I subscribe to a digital marketing newsletter, actually I subscribe to a fair few of them, not that any of their helpful tips and advice have been applied to this site, but every so often I get a notion to try and get more people to visit twimii, so I start searching for tips online and in the process end up subscribing to yet another newsletter that I may read occasionally and even seriously contemplate following the steps outlined in one of its articles… until I read through some of the content here and realize I should possibly correct improve it before drawing people’s attention to it, possibly. And possibly regularly add to it rather than just doing so on the rare occasion I feel like it.

So is this the start of some new resolution to regularly add new, accurate and insightful content to twimii? Nah, no point completely changing it at this stage. In any case I’m not much good at sticking to resolutions. (I resolved to post toons up to the point where twimii meets Mad Mary and I did really try to make good on the toons resolution last year but … um … well those toons may look completely thrown together but they still take me ages to do – but seeing as how I like Mad Mary as much as I like twimii I will give that resolution a go next year.)

No, what prompted me to ramble through my thoughts here today was this presentation (although I guess it was more the film I watched afterwards). I was going through old emails and one of the marketing newsletters featured the slideshow. I started looking through it because I suspected it was going to be funny but by the end of it I felt the joke was on me for having gone through it. If you haven’t taken a look at the presentation (I wouldn’t bother if I was reading this), it starts off with a bunch of slides that make the point that brands aren’t your friends and can’t replace human contact (e.g. “A brand will never marry you.”). I’m not sure why anyone would think it necessary to point this out, but I stuck with it convinced it was going to get hilarious (yes, I’m one of those people who laugh out loud at memes). It did get ridiculous, but not really in an LOL way, at least not for me. Next up were several slides on how omnipresent (and omniscient even) brands are in our daily lives – listen, the fact that we have to pay for most, almost all, of the things we use and consume does not mean that we pay attention to the product’s brand, and the notion that brands, or rather marketers, have the vaguest notion of who I am or what are my deepest fears and desires is laughable – though not in an LOL meme kinda way. And finally a bunch of slides about how you should take back your power by using your social media likes responsibly to support “good” brands. Yes, really.

The thing that really bugged me about this was that the first slide seemed like a fairly straightforward anti-marketing statement and there were slides with some quotes that were I think attributed to Banksy and it seemed like his viewpoint was similar to the one expressed in the first slide which made it even worse that the whole point of the slideshow seemed to be “make sure and like those brands y’all”. I was sorely tempted to comment “Is this post post modernist irony or do you really not get it?” but I didn’t because firstly I don’t actually know what post post modernist irony is, secondly, although I’d seen Banksy’s work that got attention in the media, I don’t really know that much about him, and thirdly all the comments I read were very positive and I didn’t want to be the witch who spilled her coffee on the keyboard of praise on purpose (what a witch!). So I left it … only to now write this whole article in response to it … which I guess might be a much much meaner thing to do – except later that evening I watched a movie which made me suspect that maybe after all the slideshow really was a far-too-clever-for-you-simpletons joke. Although it probably wasn’t – in which case if the slideshow creator does happen to see this, which is unlikely, I’m sorry. I didn’t like the presentation but it’s not like it matters. And the movie was really what provoked me into writing this.

Not having got any laughs from the slideshow I decided to watch a comedy so I went to suggestmemovie.com and searched for comedies made in the last 20 years that were rated 8 or more. Lo and behold it suggested Exit Through the Gift Shop. OK, it wasn’t that big a coincidence; it was about the 10th suggestion and I had been unable to find links for the other movie that sounded interesting.

When Exit Through the Gift Shop was on in the IFI a couple of people, with a sense of humour much more sophisticated than mine, told me I should go see it and on the basis of these recommendations I avoided it completely. But I decided to give it a go as suggestmemovie describes it as “The story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy…” and after the slideshow I did want to have a better idea of where he was coming from. As I said, I had seen his work that had attracted the attention of the mainstream media and I really liked what I had seen. His stuff is very visually inviting and to me it seems provocative on a number of different levels. It also looks very well crafted. I assume this guy has gone to art college but whether he has or is self taught is irrelevant his work is brilliant. Even someone who doesn’t know much about art, like me, can see this immediately. That said, I really didn’t like the film.

I don’t know what post post modernist irony is but I am certain that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a perfect example of it. From the shot of a customer in Thierry Guetta’s shop smoothly revealing that it is none other than Beck you know that what you’re watching is staged and so for the proceeding 60 or so minutes you feel that you are being laughed at. The fact that it remains an entertaining watch is really due to the street art it shows which is generally fresh enough to overcome the format. I think I get what the film was trying to say, although when something is expressed this circuitously it’s hard to be sure if there is any serious point to it at all. The film seems to be work of Bansky and I think his point is that his work and all street art ceases to be subversive once it becomes part of mainstream culture and is sold (and so marketed) just like every other commodity in our culture. He makes this point a few different ways but the one that comes most readily to mind is the Tate Gallery stunt being reported on the ITN news. He hung some pictures in the gallery, apparently without their permission. If something is reported on the news, particularly in cheery tones, you can be certain that what you’re seeing isn’t subversive. But just because something is accepted by the mainstream media (and isn’t it uplifting to think that in a few decades that phrase could well be meaningless), just because something isn’t rejected or feared by “the establishment” (whatever that now means) doesn’t make it any less thought provoking, any less likely to elicit emotion, or any less valuable in the real sense. To be honest I never have regarded street art as subversive. If it was subversive people like me would not be aware of it. And the issue of street art selling out is to me by the by. The fact that market economics seems to regulate almost every part of our lives these days is – well, it’s – I’m trying to find a word that isn’t offensive – it’s not easy – actually that is the word – the fact that market economics seems to invade and regulate almost every part of our lives these days is offensive. But to be honest I don’t really care if someone pays thousands to own a work of art, nor do I care if advertisers tend to use sex or, even more embarrassingly, a sense of belonging to sell everything from shampoo to mobile phones, I care that to access the best level of essential services like healthcare or education, and to get essential commodities like water or energy, you must pay. That is deeply offensive. No, that isn’t the right word because it’s much worse than offensive, it’s what prevents us from having truly equal societies. It’s oppressive.

But back to the movie, I probably would have enjoyed it and not minded so much that it was staged, after all most documentaries are – at least to a certain extent – if it wasn’t for the Disneyland-Guantanamo-Bay protest bit. I think that maybe he was making a point about how political statements by artists can seem far too self-regarding… possibly that was what he was on about… possibly it was just a simple joke. What we are told/shown is Banksy poses a dummy dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, and chains or attaches it to a fence by which one of the rides pass. Thierry Guetta is filming this and the park’s security take him and question him for four hours. The analogy being drawn, though of course not explicitly, between Guetta getting questioned for four hours, if it even happened, and men being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, so they could be considered outside U.S. legal jurisdiction, under the label of “enemy combatants” so that they would not get recognition as prisoners of war and so not be afforded the protections of the Geneva Conventions… Yeah, I don’t have a sense of humour about Guantanamo Bay. I was very shocked that the US would incarcerate people in such a way that they were denied their basic rights, not charged with a crime and not told for how long they would be held. Compared to other superpowers, both contemporaneous and historical, the US has a very good record on human rights. That’s why I was so shocked by the detention camps in Guantanamo Bay.

I first read about what was going on there in 2004. I had heard about the place before but I hadn’t paid it much attention as I assumed that the people there were imprisoned in the normal way. I was on a long haul flight, leafing through a magazine, I think it was GQ, and there was an article on Guantanamo Bay by some reporter who had visited the place. Aside from the horribleness of the camp, the bit that really stuck with me was where a guard almost admits that they know some of the prisoners are innocent. It really bothered me a lot. I did some searching online and read some more about the camps. I tried to find a good protest to join but I didn’t want to join anything that sounded anti-American and the problem I had was that a lot of the protests did sound like that to me. By the end of 2005 I decided that I would create a protest of my own, one that would be respectful but that would clearly express disapprobation of these detention camps and their methods of incarceration. I found a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1433 (2005), which said everything I wanted to say. As well as asking the US to recognize the rule of law and the basic rights of the detainees, it asks the member states of the Council of Europe to assist any of their citizens who are being detained and to ensure that their territory and facilities are not used in connection with practices of secret detention or rendition. I felt that if the member states implemented the resolution then what was happening in Guantanamo Bay would stop because it would mean future detainees could not be flown through the airspace of member states, and also the effect of so many countries, who are all allies of the US, standing up and saying, listen we’re not going to allow this to continue, would be huge. It was pretty naïve of me to think that that could really happen I know but that is what I thought. The resolution was adopted on April 26 2005 and I asked people to protest with me on April 26 2006 by not buying anything that day and reducing their energy consumption to the lowest possible level to signal their protest, and to sign an online petition asking CoE member states to implement the resolution.

Now I don’t think that Banksy or Thierry Guetta or anyone involved with this film is against making a protest about Guantanamo Bay or anything, or that they intentionally made light of the situation there (though that was kinda the effect of that bit). I don’t really know what point, if any, that bit had but I felt they were mocking protests that don’t have much impact. My protest didn’t have much impact, or any I guess. The only member state which responded was my own, Ireland. In fairness, the office of the then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, did send a very complete reply which essentially went on about their efforts to ensure Shannon was not being used for rendition, I didn’t quite believe it, but I was very impressed that they took the time to respond to so small a protest. I’m pretty feckless with what I do here on twimii but when I care about something I really do try my best. I tried my best with the protest but try as I might all I could get was about 40 signatures. As protests go it was a pretty dismal showing. But even if a protest isn’t big and it isn’t clever I think it is still important to make your protest. And particularly if you are someone, like a famous artist, who already has an audience. Do your research, yes, but at the end of the day, if that voice inside you says “this is wrong”, then stand up and say out loud “this is wrong”.

In June 2006 the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees were entitled to the protections given under the Geneva Conventions and when President Barak Obama came to office in 2009 he pledged to close the facility. Sadly he has since backtracked on this pledge, apparently due to opposition by the US Congress. The numbers being detained there have greatly reduced; as of March 2014 there are 154 men imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camps.

After the protest I looked into whether it is possible for citizens to force their state to adhere to international treaties and resolutions that it has signed, in the same way it is possible to ensure that your state adheres to the articles of your state’s constitution; it is not possible – not without some national legislation implementing the resolution or treaty. But that doesn’t mean that these resolutions are meaningless, I believe they do bring a certain amount of pressure on administrations that are the subject of these resolutions. So I believe that, much like making a charitable donation, it doesn’t make much difference but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Since then, and since the economic downturn, I really believe that the problem is that the political and state models we have do not give ordinary people enough say in what goes on in our world (or even our country), they just are not democratic enough. The fact that we vote on people rather than policies is moronic. Am I saying that I don’t think representative democracy is really democratic? Yeah, pretty much.

Yeah so I don’t have any sense of humour when it comes to Guantanamo Bay, so that’s why the bit in Exit Through the Gift Shop made me mad enough that I felt I had to write this to say “hey you, stop being so clever”. But I accept that maybe I’ve misunderstood it. I hope that’s it.

The last part of the film is about Guetta, under the name of Mr Brainwash, setting up basically a street art business in much the same way that he set up a very trendy and overpriced thrift shop. My feelings on that were – fair play to him, why not? Taking it that that bit was true and he did actually set up as an artist or did once own a thrift shop… Who knows, it’s beyond me.

In any case, be sure and use your likes responsibly and like twimii.

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