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Expanding The Factory: contemporary art and the corporate ideal

By Mike Brennan

Das Institut: company report 2008

Andy Warhol, that seminal appropriator of corporation-led, consumer-driven imagery and ethos, always proclaimed himself delighted with the marketing machine that was post-war America.

His work, however, leaves good reason to assume this wasn't entirely the case, and a new generation of artists are equally concerned with subtly critiquing capitalist desire by engaging with its concerns and methodologies.

Tobias Madison

Producing work which simultaneously utilises the corporate ideal while surreptitiously examining and even undermining the structures on which it depends, this post-Warholian engagement with industry serves as part interrogation, part overhaul of 'The Factory' concept; a reevaluation of art as yet another product promoted to ever more voracious consumers.

Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder's collaborative Das Institut famously emulates corporate structure to produce artworks that double as promotional materials, company reports (page top), sponsorships (above left) and branded goods.

One of the most talked about (and influential) art projects in years, Das Institut combines the pragmatism of a successful business model with artistic endeavour - resulting in an "import / export agency" which generates creative output even at the level of its own maintenance and administration.

Crucially, however, the serial nature of classic Warholian production is shunned for 'boutique' projects and individual works - an ethos that likewise informs the practice of all the artists featured.


Yes, I can!

Tobias Madison

For Swiss artist Tobias Madison, the bland homogeneities of the corporate environment are indelibly intermingled with the veneer of its promotional tactics - particularly the appropriations of design, entertainment and image that embody so-called 'lifestyle' branding.

The origins of this ongoing attempt to infiltrate and emulate heightened consumer aspiration can be traced back to the late 1970s / early 1980s, when advertising's former reliance on a careful iteration of product benefits was replaced with little more than a logo and sumptuously seductive photography.

Reflecting the transcendence of desires over needs in ever-more affluent societies, image (in every sense) became a principal marketing tactic.

Madison's superficially stylish vitrines - a signature piece (above left) - hark back to such an era. Miniature jungles of fake flora and foliage are crammed behind thrusting expanses of tinted 'glass', their laminate bases finished in faux wood-grain or boldly patterned inlays reminiscent of Memphis, the Italian furniture manufacturer that set the agenda for '80s statement design.

Deftly capturing the essence of corporate foyer decor, Madison ensures that its deliberately seductive qualities - a showy monumentality on the cheap - continue to resound in his own, oddly compelling parodies.

Tobias Madison

An even less restrained aesthetic is evident in the artist's most recent wall-hung works (left): near-psychedelic incursions into Photoshop filtering, these flirtations with excess and dubious taste delight in their own digitised artificiality; all surface and brash decoration, they provide a logical successor to previous, more demure wallpaper designs and fractured, logo-like swashes.

A 2010 show at New York's Swiss Institute established yet another context for Madison's tongue-in-cheek allegiance to the corporate marketing model.

'Yes I can!', the branding mantra of the Radisson Hotels chain, holds a particular fascination for the artist.

As he has pointed out, its introduction in 1979 was accompanied by "a service apprenticeship program ... (a)iming to fortify profits through improvements in the "non-productive" aspects of a business, (and for which CEO Curtis Carlson) ... also developed the Gold Bond Stamp System, a prototype for incentive programs that have sold credit cards, transatlantic flights, and "thinking of you" bouquets of FTD flowers ever since."

Yet if the affirmative rallying cry of the world's oldest global chain "...doubles as a symbol for the success of the service industry" it also serves as a proclamation of intent for Madison himself:

"Driving from Switzerland to China this summer, I collected a bunch of Yes I Can! flags, cutting them from the facades of the Radisson hotels I passed as though the slogan was an invitation to do so."

Tobias Madison

Used as ersatz canvases for painterly intervention by other artists (including Kerstin Brätsch of Das Institut), Madison's 'commissioned' creatives were instructed to employ the brand colours of his road trip's 'sponsors' - manufacturers of the various energy drinks consumed en route (above).

The beverages make their own appearance in a candy-coloured array of liquid-filled tanks that echo Madison's foliage-filled vitrines while also, in passing, mischievously referencing the works of mega-brand artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, whose own adoption of The Factory model seems more based on profit than artistic ideology (below).

And in a neat display of the kind of segmentation marketing execs drool over, a filmed record of Madison's road trip received its premiere at the same show: 'Yes I can! - The Movie'.

Tobias Madison

Leveraging the mechanisms of corporate branding as both a blueprint and inspiration for creative output, Madison's impish entrepreneurship strikes at the heart of the marketing industry's frequent incursions into the artworld.

Neatly reversing the cosying up of industry to art (and vice versa) - a situation that reached a zenith in the late 1990s with frequent partnerships between luxury goods manufacturers and leading artists (Murakami's designs for Louis Vuitton spring to mind) - Madison's practice, similarly to Das Institut, co-opts the corporate vision from the outset, adopting it as a working method while extending its logic towards a kind of glorious absurdity.


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