Becking Order

Rhonda Lieberman on “Creativity Now”

New York

Left: Julie Verhoeven and Elisabeth Arkhipoff. Right: Steve Bassett and Eric Grunbaum. (Photos: Alain Levitt)

The only other time I’d noticed Tokion, self-described as “the National Geographic for our pop culture generation,” was when the groovily designed flyers (fin de siècle by way of Haight-Ashbury) for their last conference at Cooper Union caught my eye and aimed it at a stellar lineup of art and media people. This year’s third annual chatfest probes “Creativity Now,” and the line-up is no less impressive. Saturday afternoon, I caught two back-to-back panels: “Iconic Advertising” and “Design & Grace.” Heading across St. Marks Place, passing stall after stall of punk tchotchkes, I appreciated the creativity now of stupid T-shirts (“What Part of Me-ow Don’t You Understand?”; “It Took Me 40 Years to Look This Good”). I also marveled at how people subject themselves to the dreary hazing of a panel: a mélange of schlepping, awkwardness, and singing-for-your-supper barely mitigated by the usually “modest” honoraria, oodles of flattery, and the fleeting comfort that you were invited and not your frenemy colleague (And yes, you have to go through the ordeal and not make an ass of yourself. Or worse, bore people to death—and be remembered as “dull in person.”) Who can resist?

“Iconic Advertising” served up Eric Grunbaum, creative director of the ubiquitous iPod ads, Steve Bassett, the brain behind the Geico ads, and Peter Wijk, who oversees the Absolut Vodka campaign. After fumbling with his laptop and being tech-rescued by an Asian woman, Grunbaum gave a cute presentation about his team’s process that was as smart (big surprise) as the ads themselves. But it was all downhill from there. Steve Bassett was a really monotonous speaker, dryly warning that his account was not as “sexy” as iPods or vodka. We learned the Geico team must “overcome two factors—indifference and inertia—and get people to shop” for car insurance. After droning on about “consistency” in the Geico campaign’s message about saving money, he told the squirming room of twenty-something freelance designers: “Now I’m going to show you eleven Geico ads we’ve run over the years.” Who knew how hilarious those Geico ads were? Bravo, mister. I almost revivified. Then it was the Absolut guy’s turn. From Sweden, he too was an excruciating mumbler. Between them, the combined mumble/drone lulled me into a state of anguished torpor. If you, reader, ever agree to be on a panel please, please, sir or madam, do not mumble. These people came to hear you. Not to look at you (OK, we came to do that too, but lacking significant eye candy or diverting oddity we’d like an audible soundtrack too). The best take-away thought was Grunbaum’s point that good ads are “simple and human. They’re not about how clever and creative you (the copywriter/ad genius) are.” The Geico ads cleverly succeeded by playing up how boring it is to even hear about their product.

Next was “Design & Grace,” moderated by Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of SHOWStudio, a website that mingles art and fashion. Laurent Fetis, slumped in his suit like a rumpled Jean-Pierre Léaud knock-off, is a super-groovy French graphic designer and video director who speaks English in a fluent mumble. His remarks—something about Beck and Björk—were probably quite interesting. His occasional collaborator and co-panelist, artist Elisabeth Arkhipoff, seemed amused (that she was speaking English?) and giggled enigmatically into her hand. She and Letis conferred amongst themselves, which de-centered the panel, as did the ongoing slide show of the panelists’ pieces that book-ended the stage: neo-mod-looking rocker stuff, abstract graphics, magazine covers, elaborate bad girl-looking doodles. Beck’s giant head, from a recent album cover designed by Letis à la Milton Glaser’s Bob Dylan poster, flashed the audience like a revenant of hipness. The versatile Julie Verhoeven, “much in demand for her creative direction and whimsical yet savage drawings,” is British and, yes, a fast mumbler too. That left the happy-looking artist Jeremy Blake as the sole panelist who projected decently. Erg!

Dressed like a trooper in a black trenchcoat-dress, high black boots, and a tidy blonde bob, poor Martin had quite a workout here trying to generate a discussion. All the panelists are “multi-taskers,” as she put it, moving between different media (graphics, video, painting, fashion, film) and working with rock stars. Cool. A conversation finally happened when Martin raised the issue of professional “pigeonholing” that plagues artists, designers, and everybody else. She noted the shift from early-twentieth-century aspirations for usable, everyday design to today’s less utilitarian vision, asking, “Is the ultimate destination for a designer now to be shown in a gallery?”

“It’s an ambition for people who don’t know the gallery world,” said Blake. “And the artists all want to work with Beck. The best thing is to mix it up. There’s a danger for younger artists to be defined too quickly. Go away, do something else and come back,” he advised. “It’s dangerous if you let anyone give you a shelf life. Stay safe from letting one group of people represent—or misrepresent—you.” Good luck!

“It’s very important to do different things,” agreed multi-tasking Arkhipoff, whose dark green leather boots and sheer black hose were great with a grey blazer. “You don’t get bored. To reconnaisser [sic] to one thing—that to me [is] a big problem. I do a lot of different things.”

“In the west,” Letis mumbled vehemently, “after the end of avant-garde, you need to find a sticker [label]. If there’s a designer who works as a banker in Japan—that’s completely normale.

“Everyone’s a DJ,” Blake cheerfully observed.

“Maybe in USA,” retorted Letis.