I first heard about police shutting down parts of Interstate 93 because of a bomb scare last Wednesday morning, but it wasn’t until I watched Fox 25 News’s breathless report that night (is there a better place to learn about fake news?) that I witnessed the circus that resulted from what turned out be Turner Broadcasting’s advertising stunt. Or perhaps it should be called the invasion of the low-res cartoon moon men.
The bomb-squad guys in spacesuits blowing stuff up was pretty cool, and hilarious. Shutting down the whole city’s transportation system seemed a little over the top though. It was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst art events of the young year.
Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Monday that Turner Broadcasting and New York guerilla marketing firm Interference Inc. will pay $2 million to settle potential civil and criminal claims against the companies for paying a couple local schlubs 300 bucks each to plaster Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville with 38 battery-powered Lite-Brite-style signs depicting Cartoon Network’s Mooninite characters flipping us the bird. As of press time, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, who are in their late 20s, still face charges of disorderly conduct and placing a hoax device in a way that causes panic.
The signs and Stevens’s and Berdovsky’s post-arrest performance-art-press-conference (“I want to redirect this to hairstyles in the ’70s because I want to educate myself about this a little bit more”) were stupid. I get the joke, and appreciate the attempt — but that doesn’t mean it was funny. The whole plan was kind of stupid, or cruelly exploitive. What are they going to do next: sneak ticking, blinking “art” onto airplanes in their shoes to bring attention to some Turner cartoon show? Still, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for these two knuckleheads, the low men on the totem pole who became the public faces of the corporate prank. I hope and expect the attorney general will plead them out soon, with no jail time for anyone.
What made this incident rise to the level of art was Boston officialdom’s unwitting collaboration and the questions it raised about local art and fear. Initially the city’s reaction struck me as one more example of Boston’s stodgy dull seriousness and inability to get a joke, no matter how much the city tries to play that it’s hipper than in the old puritanical “Banned in Boston” days. Police shut down parts of Interstate 93 after an MBTA worker found one of the Mooninite signs stuck to the understructure of the highway in Charlestown sometime around 8 am Wednesday. Fearing it was a bomb, state police destroyed it with a water cannon. Additional finds prompted officials to shut down Storrow Drive, the Red Line, the Orange Line and part of the Charles River.
Some fear is reasonable, considering that 9/11 hijackers flew out of Logan Airport on their murderous way to New York. Police were extra nervous after the arrests of terror suspects in Britain that morning and suspicious packages found in New York and Washington, DC. And it didn’t help that at 1:02 pm Tufts-New England Medical Center security called police saying they’d found what appeared to be a pipe bomb in a desk drawer. Someone fled the hospital saying, “God is warning you that today is going to be a sad day,” according to a statement from Police Commissioner Ed Davis. It turned out to be unrelated (and not a real bomb either), but that wasn’t immediately clear. What remains worrisome is that is took homeland-security types some two weeks after the signs were put up to notice them.
Ultimately, the Mooninite stuff is just corporate graffiti on our public buildings. It’s not something that aims to be art, that uses the guerrilla tactic to be funny and thoughtful, to surprise and make us see things anew, like the curled-in-on-itself park bench that Matthew Hincman snuck into Jamaica Pond last summer (and that city officials later embraced) or the guerilla art show staged by subversive local artists in the Museum of Fine Arts’s bathroom in 1971 to humorously point out how the MFA was ignoring contemporary art.
Those were statements (funny jokes) rising up from the underground. But this was corporate vandalism produced by the same folks who pay models to go to bars and pretend they are tourists with fancy new cameras — which they are actually advertising. Corporate America has co-opted underground, alternative culture and turned it against us.
This isn’t new. Adman Edward Bernays popularized smoking among ladies during the Depression by concocting an Easter Parade of smoking debutants in New York. “That one act and the press that was covered after that sort of changed America’s smoking habits,” Interference chief Sam Ewen raved in a 2002 NPR interview. Volkswagen commercials and The OC gain hipster cred by playing indie tunes in the background — music generally banished from corporate radio airwaves. The problem is we’ve gotten hipper to advertising ploys and ignore them, so creeps find increasingly insidious and antisocial ways to sneak them into our lives. IBM agreed to pay San Francisco $100,000 in 2001 for marketing slogans it illegally stenciled onto city sidewalks. Last fall, Microsoft got permission to parachute small-business software onto an Illinois town.
Why should we put up with corporations raining down advertisements from the sky? Why should we put up with them defacing our public property with their advertising junk — and for free? Don’t they have enough places to put their marketing crap?