A couple decades ago, inline skating was sort of the redheaded stepchild of the skate scene. No self-respecting skater punk kid would have associated with a “fruit-booter,” as the inline skaters were known. The public perception of skaters was that they were the “cool” kids. Inline skaters were definitely not the cool kids. Jerry, the current CEO of Heavy Guerrilla, found himself heading a company that designed and manufactured wheels for inline skates. Realizing the uphill climb he had to create a “cool” image for these wheels, he went looking for someone doing really great graphics. He looked at the skate brands that were known for their great graphics, and tracked down a company called BLK/MRKT who was doing really great skate designs. It took a little convincing to talk these skate punk designer kids into doing “fruit-booter” graphics, but it was a collaboration that eventually led to Shepard Fairey and Dave Kinsey creating all of the marketing for Mothership Distribution, creating pretty sick graphics for something that had previously been ignored at best. Through that initial meeting, Jerry spent a lot of time talking with Fairey and Kinsey about their evolving beliefs in the overlap between guerrilla marketing and street art.
Here at the Heavy Guerrilla office, the walls are adorned with prints of Shepard Fairey’s well-known OBEY poster, featuring an iconized version of Andre the Giant’s face, as well as similar work by other street artists and marketing created by BLK/MRKT. The whole ethos of guerrilla marketing is rooted in the street art the folks like Fairey helped to bring to the (more or less) mainstream. So I was really excited to realize that the movie Exit Through The Gift Shop would be playing here in Olympia. Although the main character is Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta ), the movie heavily features Fairey and Banksy, possibly the two most well-known street artists today.
On the surface, Exit Through The Gift Shop is not a very interesting movie. If I had wandered in to the theater randomly, I might have wandered back out halfway through. Thierry Guetta is a little interesting as a lead character, but not so interesting as to be able to carry the lead for a whole movie. Somewhere near the middle, they flash back to some home movies of when Guetta was a kid, and something about his mom dying or something and I think then we were supposed to be feeling very emotionally connected to him. But by that point I was already rolling my eyes. I don’t know if the movie was a full-on Banksy prank, or some hall of mirrors version of reality, but one thing is for sure: It wasn’t intended to be taken at face value. Banksy and Shepard Fairey are both far too talented as artists to have created the yawn that this movie is on the surface.
The surface plot is fairly straight-forward. Guetta is a guy running a vintage clothing store in LA. He’s obsessive about his camcorder and he records EVERYTHING. He happens upon his cousin, Invader, a Paris-based street artist and spends some time recording the creation and installation of Invader’s mosaics based on the characters from the old game Space Invaders. (Here’s what Shepard Fairey says about Invader’s work, “Whether or not he intended it, Space Invader’s work mirrors the video game culture it references, acknowledging the sensory-overloaded public’s need for immediately digestable symbols. Invader’s pop art may seem shallow, but by taking the risk of illegally re-contextualizing video game characters in an urban environment that provides more chaotic social interaction than a gamer’s bedroom, he makes a statement about the desensitizing nature of video games and consumer culture.” http://swindlemagazine.com/issue03/space-invader-2/ )
So Guetta, with no previous experience with street art or apparently with any sort of art, finds himself connected to a wide range of street artists who allow him to follow them around filming their work. As the story unfolds, Guetta eventually connects with Fairey, who eventually connects him with Banksy. Guetta claims to be making a street art documentary, and Banksy lets him film a bunch of his work on the condition that he not record Banksy’s face. Unbeknownst to all the street artists, Guetta isn’t really making a documentary. In fact, he never even looks at the recordings after he finishes them. He is just a compulsive recorder, but has no intention of compiling the footage into a film. Finally, Banksy calls him on it, and Guetta sits down to try his hand at compiling a film. It comes out horribly, and there is a clip of this original “documentary” in the movie. Banksy sees it, realizes that he’s been duped, and decides to take over the footage and make his own movie. He tells Guetta to go try his own hand at street art and give up filming.
From there, the movie diverges from being a movie about street artists to being a movie about Guetta, who restyles himself as Mr. Brainwash and does a lot of derivative art and stages himself a huge show in LA called Life Is Beautiful. Most of the public loves it, but the artists involved are all covering for the ineptness of Guetta who is not good at art or at running a show but who is very very good at marketing himself. Thousands of people come to the show, and his art sells for ridiculously high prices. On the surface, the movie has become about this interesting character, Guetta, who has managed to break into the art scene on sheer willpower and marketing. One level down, it’s a statement about the gullibility of the consuming public to spend ridiculous amounts of money on derivative art that’s really just re-mixed iconography from the last several decades, created by someone with no talent and no originality. But there’s a deeper level that I haven’t seen addressed in other reviews.
In the movie, Guetta is subtly accused of being “not a real artist” because he just repurposes and remixes other’s art. It’s always interesting to take an accusation and turn it around and see if it applies to the accuser. Last I heard, Fairey was actually involved in litigation over his appropriation of Mannie Garcia’s copyrighted photo of Barack Obama. Fairey used the photo to create the amazingly effective “Hope” poster that became an icon of the Obama campaign. The Obey Giant poster for which he is so well known carries the slogan popularized in a John Carpenter movie. Fairey himself wrote a Manifesto to explain his use of the OBEY icon in terms of phenomenology (a term coined by Heidegger, who explained it as “the process of letting things manifest themselves”). It’s interesting then, to play with the hall of mirrors started in Exit Through the Gift Shop by reversing the lens yet again and looking at Guetta and Life Is Beautiful in terms of phenomenology.
Can we say that the amazing success of the Life Is Beautiful show “manifested itself”? Yes and no. Guetta, Fairey, and Banksy all put a whole lot of effort into hyping the show. There was a line around the block for hours before the show even opened. Major marketing was done, including a huge street art campaign featuring Banksy’s endorsement of the show. This was definitely not as simple as just making a sticker and slapping it on some street signs and seeing what happens. On the other hand, as many of us probably know, there is some element of phenomenology to any successful marketing campaign. You can do all the marketing you want, but it’s that one goofy 2 minute clip that you throw up on YouTube that everyone reposts to their Facebook pages that becomes the big hook you weren’t even expecting.
The ongoing success of Mr. Brainwash, despite all of his detractors, has a lot to do with this process where some folks decided they like it, so that makes other folks like it. Check out the process of Emergence to learn more about how it works.
But again, there is a deeper level. After watching Exit Through The Gift Shop, I’m not really that interested in learning more about Guetta’s work. But I am a lot more interested in Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Funny, that. In researching the movie after watching it, I’ve spent a lot more time reading about Fairey and Banksy than I have about Guetta. Is this really the core of guerrilla marketing strategies? Is Exit Through the Gift Shop the video equivalent of an Obey sticker slapped on a stop sign? Neither piece would be seen as very effective in terms of traditional marketing. There’s no information included about who actually made the piece or how you could contact them, or even why you would want to contact them. In fact, Exit Through the Gift Shop includes purposely misleading information about who made it. But they are both still incredibly effective as marketing pieces, as seen by the world-class shows and museums that are featuring Fairey’s and Banksy’s works today.
So, what does that look like in terms of your business? If you were going to add a guerrilla marketing tactic to your repertoire, what would it look like? Perhaps stickers slapped on the sides of buildings isn’t your niche (not to mention that it resides in a “certain legal grey area”, as Banksy puts it). How can you take advantage of this “phenomenology” to attract customers to your product? Banksy and Fairey are known as masters of marketing, although neither of them has ever sent out a mailing to everyone in their target zipcodes, or bought a TV spot. While their style of marketing isn’t free (you gotta pay Kinko’s for all those copies), maybe there’s something here to be learned about creating hype in an underground style. Leave us some comments about what that would look like for your business.
And here’s the full movie on Vimeo: