Historic KaDeWe shopping center, Berlin, Germany
Material: green paint
Photos by Richard Schwarz and Vincent
A didactic play for a artist, an event agency, a department store, dozens of press officers and journalists – and a global brand.
The performance of US artist Brad Downey will probably go down in the history of French fashion empire Lacoste as the worst public relations catastrophe it has experienced. Perhaps it will one day be cited in the handbooks of future public relations consultants – as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, for Downey himself it has once again been another high-profile publicity stunt. A specific feature of a successful art campaign is that it works in the same way as Jiu-Jitsu – the Japanese martial art in which the opponent’s force is transformed and directed back at him.
But let's start at the beginning: Lacoste wanted to celebrate its 75th birthday in Berlin and invited eleven artists to design the display windows of Europe’s biggest consumer temple, the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe). “From Wednesday, May 28 through July 12, 2008, the entire atrium will be designed in the style of the brand. In addition, original works of art created especially for the occasion will be displayed in the eleven display windows facing Tauentzienstrasse”, it said in the press release at the time.
Brad Downey was invited as well, and delivered his original work prior to the official opening: He used a fire-extinguisher to spray the 100 meter long store front with Lacoste-green paint (incidentally, in another fine point of the performance, the paint was washable children’s finger paint). So far so good, or, as another artist friend commented: “If you’re going to employ a vandal, you’re going to get a vandal”. What happened next can be best retold using the newspaper headlines: The tabloid Bild (“KaDeWe Green Over Night”) and the Berliner Zeitung (“Paint Attack on KaDeWe”) were the first to report on the green “smearings” on the store windows – they suspected that radical leftwing anti-consumerists or Tibet activists (because at the time dresses by Chinese designer Vera Wang on display in the windows) were behind the incident. KaDeWe called the police, the first blogs revealed the true perpetrator and the press picked up the scent as well: “Attack on KaDeWe Artist's Prank?” (Tagesspiegel) and “Lacoste behind KaDeWe Paint Attack?” (Welt). Brad Downey then gave a press conference, confessed that he was responsible for the performance, dedicated it to Till Eulenspiegel (“Don’t worry about that shit, René”) and declared: “I’ve been straightforward to everyone. This was not a radical action! They paid me for what I wrote before, and this is exactly what they’ve got. The only thing I didn’t tell them is that it was going to be their building. But if they pay me for vandalism, why shouldn’t it be their building?”
For the Berlin Backjumps exhibition, Downey has realized a multimedia installation on the performance and has called it “In Soliloquy with Madson Jones”. Madson Jones was the pseudonym used by American pop art legends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns when they carried out commercial projects, especially display window designs. For the first time, Downey has collected every newspaper article, letter, contract, sketch, photo and video – and the entanglement of art, commerce and consumerism is exposed through this complete transparency. The documents offer a thrilling and instructive view behind the scenes of public relations agencies and denounce the selling-out of creative ideas. The contract made between Downey and an event agency is shown, as well as Downey’s concept (“Something outside will turn green”), the ideas handed in by other artists along with photos of the display windows they realized, letters to KaDeWe by the event agency (“It seems important to take up a strategically intelligent position”) and a statement by the responsible curator, Willem Stratmann: “When I was asked to invite Brad Downey, I was against it. Of course Brad is a good artist, only he can’t be bought and thus is not the right person for an art project with a commercial background.”
The effects and consequences that followed are known: Petra Fladenhofer, spokesperson for KaDeWe, reacted hysterically: “We have no understanding whatsoever for this”. And instead of being pleased with the media attention they could never have gained in this dimension with the planned display window designs, Lacoste and KaDeWe excluded Downey from the exhibition. This, of course, only triggered a boomerang effect. “Art Performance: The Crocodile Has Locked Its Jaws” the newspaper Taz titled shortly afterwards and wrote: “Just as the 75th birthday of the brand arrives, its terribly well-behaved image could topple. If this happens, the pink polo shirt will stand for Porky Pig, the squealing spoilsport who is as pedantic as he is humorless. And all this because Lacoste invited the wrong friends to its birthday party.” The art magazine “Art” commented succinctly: “Perhaps they are still a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to guerilla marketing.”