Peddling Art at Nuit Banque: A foray through the landscape of corporate art
Walking around Scotiabank Nuit Blanche with blank white signs, we insisted to the public that we were not there to protest. We were expressing ourselves, although we distinctly had nothing to say. If we did have something to say, we made sure to note that those receiving our message would need at least three degrees in art to understand it. Our one and only goal of the evening, as we candidly revealed to inquisitors, was to find a wealthy and learned patron of the arts who would buy our signs for $5,000 each (the closest we got was an offer of $50, which we rejected because “true art can’t be discounted”).
As we walked up and down Yonge Street, flooded for the occasion with drunken 15 year olds and abstract pleasure-seekers, and overburdened with Scotiabank tents and advertisements, we were met with a diverse range of reactions from the public. By presenting a minor spectacle (signs) we managed to draw lots of attention – members of the public, after seeing a blank side of our placards, chased after us with hopes of finding meaning on the opposite side. Much to their disappointment, our signs conveyed only as much meaning as the Scotiabank art around us (none at all, that is).
Some understood right away, labelling us an ironic protest. Others were inexplicably enraged. Someone screamed, “That’s not fucking art!” before disappearing into the crowd. Others informed us that our signs were blank. Many expressed that we represented a cause they could get behind – shouting “I support nothing!” or “I support your cause” etc.
Noting that Scotiabank’s art consisted mainly of bright lights and meaningless sculptures, we asked attendants who were manning Scotiabank’s illuminated information booths, “Is this an art?” Similarly, noting that lines for art were about as long as line-ups for food or coffee, we asked people waiting in line for refreshments if they were waiting in line for or participating in art.
The art that we did see, mostly on Yonge Street, carried a distinctly corporate ethos. There were explicit spectacles – flamethrowers, flashing lights and zip-lines – as well as other works that encouraged a sort of existential conformity. Certain installations were in the lobbies of office buildings, encouraging art-seekers to line up for an opportunity to experience this privileged, private space. A video-art / sound piece on Yonge featured images of a dancer, stylistically cut to a deadpan cheerleader repeating “Be efficient, be-be efficient.” Perhaps this piece is attempting to satirize corporate office culture, but it is as deeply boring as the offices themselves. The message here is clear: Be a good cog in the machine, ever maximizing profits for your employer and your bank. Express yourself here, on Nuit Blanche, in the officially sanctioned art space where anything and everything becomes meaningless by context.
We spewed art-speak (bullshit) to legitimize our artwork (the placards) often quoting the most trite and common explanation for Munch’s The Scream, which appears to work for any and every art work – “it expresses ‘the universal anxiety of modern man’.” We labelled our work as “post-conceptual” and then clarified that it operates beyond (and without) concepts or ideas. We encouraged members of the public to offer their own bullshit explanations of our work. Some made noble attempts, with claims like “art is in the eye of the beholder” or “art is everything”. Others strung together art-speak prefixes – interpreting our work as post-post-modern-neo-avant-post-neo-whatever. Nonetheless, we dismissed all answers as false – our signs were art because we valued them at $5,000 each. If someone disputed our claim, it was not, as they thought, because what we were doing was “not art” but because the institution of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche did not validate our meaningless art gesture.
In protesting with blank signs, the focus is not on a supposed “cause” but on the gesture of protesting itself. The question is as much, “what does it mean to walk the streets with a sign,” as, “what does a blank sign mean.” A hint – the clue is in the word itself – protest. Merriam Webster tells us it is a “the act of objecting or a gesture of disproval.” But we’re not “protesting nothing because consumer capitalism is so great”: blankness signifies everything as much as it signifies nothing. The blank sign is the not the negation of the protest, but its purest form, a complete pristine refusal. One passer-by remarked, “maybe there’s so much to protest that it didn’t fit on the sign.” This remark is as close to the truth of our action as any.
It can also be interpreted as what we call “Bartleby politics.” Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story by Herman Melville in which a young scrivener, a sort of old-fashioned clerk, eventually gives up all activities and simply occupies his former legal office. When any requests are made of him, he replies, “I would prefer not to.” He is offered money and many different kinds of jobs, all of which he prefers not to take. In the end, he is arrested and dies in jail. His sheer refusal – to have a message or to make demands – is in the end even more unbearable than his demands themselves could ever be.