Jason Mena - Branding Ideologies

Everywhere we go, it seems that advertisements are progressively invading our public and private spaces. We are constantly being bombarded with messages trying to persuade us to consume a certain product or brand. Billboards hovering over crowded highways are a perfect example of this effort in mass consumption. According to Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, "the concept of the spectacle, taking the form of advertisements or propaganda, is a social relationship among people mediated by images." The image consequently becomes the propulsor of urban conversations and discussions. The artist Jason Mena tries to do just that. In his photographic series Urban Landscapes, Mena appropriates the billboard, a space usually pertaining to advertisers, and transforms it into an active platform for the promotion of ideas.

As the image continues to substitute social interaction in contemporary society, the role of art seems all the more important in everyday life. Jason Mena’s images are nothing but forceful, as they display urban scenes where advertisments spaces are replaced with carefully chosen texts that make the viewer think. Photographs such as Todo es mentira (It’s all lies), depict a billboard with these words towering over a busy avenue during rush hour traffic. These images, alhough conceptually concrete, are merely proposals for actual urban installations. Some other examples of texts include Blah! Blah! Blah! or This Space Was Intentionally Left Blank. What is the artist really trying to say? Perhaps the space in the billboards is left open ended for the viewer to formulate their own suppositions. What seems important is that the artist is using the medium of the billboard against its very purpose. Instead of trying to condition the masses to think alike, to take part in the mass consumption of products, he is attempting to provoke in them critical independent thought.

By using the structure of the billboard as a support for artistic expresion, is Mena trying to make a statement regarding the relationship between marketing and art? It certainly seems that way. Not only is Mena promoting his work with the medium most appropriate for this purpose, but he is also branding a very particular ideology. The concept of branding is a practice commonly used in contemporary marketing. Branding or “burning” a product into the consumer’s mind is a strategy by which the corporate world markets a product to potential consumers, turning the critical public into a passive consumer public. This concept seems all the more relevant as art is linked ever more with its commercial aspect.

The revolution of the art fair has also played an influential role in transforming an artistic concept into a valuable thing-in-itself, as art dealers sell artwork just as trade shows sell products. Gallery spaces are increasingly becoming just another store where you buy just another product for your consumption and instant gratification. You can go in, pick what you like and take it home. There are no visits to the artist’s studios or any conceptual interest of the sort. Art becomes just another commodity that people acquire to gain prestige or decorate their homes. Consequently, the ideas that motivated the work eventually get lost in the commercial transaction. The next step is inevitable. The gallery space as we know it has begun its demise, as art is taken out into the public realm.

Just as Jenny Holzer uses posters and large scale public spaces to develop her artwork, Mena also takes art out of the gallery and into the public space. One project that resonates with the concept of public art is Making it Public, an intervention where the artist gave away t-shirts at the 2009 CIRCA Art Fair. Using the art fair as a stage, people wore t-shirts displaying messages such as Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes and It’s all lies and bluff, texts taken from German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Taking into account the current economic and political climate, these messages take an appealing twist. If we start to think about these texts in its political context, we begin to question (as viewers and participators of the work) our immediate political environments. Are we aware of the illusory nature of political discourse? Do we need to take on a particular political cause to be actively engaged in our social and economic destinies? And if we do, which ones are worthy of our involvement? As public space is ever more dominated by the mass media, be it through T-shirts, billboards, or gas pumps, we have become passive consumers of the prevailing ideology. By the evolution of Jason Mena’s work we see the emergence of a new public space, one where ideas and concepts can be freely discussed.

On the whole, Jason Mena’s images can be thought of as mediascapes, as they directly influence the way we perceive our surrounding realities. Although Mena’s advertisements remind us of political or commercial slogans due to their rhetorical nature, their purpose is actually very different. Instead of trying to make us concerned with consumption and the capitalist drive of the mass media, we become implicated in the construction of new ideas. The concepts behind advertising are destroyed to lead the way to the branding of ideologies. Jason Mena’s imposing images remain not only a spectacle for our eyes, but one for our minds as well.

Essay originally published on Small Axe - A Caribbean Platform for Criticism