City / Culture: Brighten the Corners

In his latest edition of City/Culture, Jeremy Rosenberg explores the eternal questions of what is art, commerce and patronage — and how do the combination of all three affect cities?

Let’s Colour

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Simple topics this week – what is art, what is commerce, what is patronage, and does the distinction – and do material motivations – matter? These issues are eternal – remember how the Lascaux cave paintings were sponsored by Glack the Cro-Magnon’s Spear Thrower Repair Shop?

Why bring this all up? A couple weeks ago, Diana Lind, editor-in-chief and publisher of Next American City, passed along to City / Culture a link to a Coolhunting post about the Let’s Colour project.

Let’s Colour, according to the U.K.-based project’s official site, is “a worldwide initiative to transform grey spaces with colourful paint.”

So far, that’s translated into plenty of exterior-painted eye candy for the rods and cones of Rio de Janeiro, Paris, London, and Jodhpur. “We really wanted to get people excited about the effect color has on you,” a project leader told Coolhunting. “It was about a spiritual, emotional regeneration.”

Whatever you think of the urban renewal results – City / Culture enjoys a couple of the images here – it’s of interest to note that Let’s Colour is, as clearly labeled online, a corporate effort.

The project is sponsored by and casts a halo around Dulux, the multinational paint-manufacturer. The campaign is the brainchild of a much-honored creative director employed by the world’s largest advertising agency. Also, the Let’s Colour website is way better than it needs to be, thanks to the keen voice and curatorial eye of blog star Rebecca Campbell.

So what’s all this got to do with anything? Nothing. Everything. Depends.

We’ll start with the assumption that if you’re reading this, you like the end result of at least some of the Let’s Colour painting being done. We’ll also trust that no damage is being done to historic preservation sites.

Still with us? Okay, so how do you feel about chest-puff philanthropy as opposed to anonymous philanthropy?

Still good? How about corporate influence in the public sphere? Billboards bother you? Even when it’s in Tokyo, outside Shibuya Station?

Okay, now what do you think about the No Logo manifesto? How about KFC’s offer to pay for pothole repairs in exchange for chalking ads on top of the fillings? How about city subways, busses, and benches hosting print and sometimes moving ads for movies, TV shows, and the like?

What else? What about deviously clever commercial clean-ups? Like when city sidewalks get – partly, in patterns – pressure-cleaned by guerilla marketing firms? Think: Negative space water stenciling, with the spew-scrubbed original concrete popping through years worth of grime, all in the shape of, say, a car company’s brand?

Deciding what is good art – like deciding what is good advertising – is of course highly subjective. One woman’s Banksy rat is, presumably, another woman’s Microsoft-chalked Linux penguin.

And while we’re on the subject, one woman’s Banksy is another woman’s Mr. Brainwash. Speaking of the great Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, Let’s Colour‘s next paint-for-all will be May 12, in France. France borders Italy, Italy borders the Adriatic Sea, and then, voila, Albania.

Mid-last decade, Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, the Albanian capitol, became so famous that the New Yorker profiled him. He won an international “mayor of the year” award. Why? In great part, because he undertook an earlier version of Let’s Colour.

Rama is an artist, and he’d also served as minister of culture before winning the mayor gig. Rama’s brand of beautification was more Hunderwasser than Concrete Mushroom. His honor ordered edifices torn down, and others to be painted brightly. (Here’s a photo gallery.)

City / Culture is about creative people doing work in urban settings. And whenever possible, City / Culture is about those same folks doing work that could be considered a municipal responsibility.

So an artist becomes a mayor and makes a city’s exteriors more colorful. He’s celebrated and wins re-election. A multi-national paint company does pretty much the same, contracting with creative minds from advertising, blogging, and painting.

What’s the difference? Some? None? It depends on how you’ve answered the various questions, above.
We’ll return to this conversation in the coming months. But before we close this week, here’s an excerpt about Tirana’s Rama, from a classic 2003 Guardian article:

He led this October’s election campaign with a rap song called “Tirona”, the slang name for the capital city, recorded together with one of Albania’s leading hip-hop bands, West Side Family.
“This is the city where mosques and churches are built side by side / This is the place where the snobs with Rolex watches go to the gypsy market / This is the place of disillusions where dreams become reality / Here is where you meet a mayor shouting down a megaphone / Where anything can happen / Where not just the women but also the facades of buildings can wear makeup.”

Let’s Colour: can you top that?

Read past City / Culture columns here.

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