Last weekend, heralded all by tourist boards, local TV news reports, and a massive full-color ad campaign throughout the city’s public transportation system, what turned out to be a relatively modest art exhibition opened in downtown Chicago. It shouldn’t have been news—the work was not impressive, and the artists unknown—but it was. The renown was due to the exhibition’s location in Millennium Park, directly between the Bean and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, as well as the sponsors of the event, the $7.5 billion Austrian energy drink company Red Bull.
“The distinctive can that has given millions of people around the world energy when they need it most has been cut, tied, welded, and glued to create remarkable pieces of sculpture from 30 US artists,” press materials oozed. Indeed, the creativity on display at “Red Bull Art of Can” ran the gamut from elephants made out of Red Bull cans clutching cans of Red Bull to 3D Red Bull logos hoisted by hands also made out of Red Bull logos.
Still, the exhibition was a massive departure from the company’s usual high-octane, extreme sports marketing stunts. Perhaps Red Bull has finally realized that target-market Millennials aren’t as self-destructive as their Gen X elders? But on the other hand, if the company believes the Kids Today are in any way willing to accept branded content as independent cultural production, those kids are going to have to call Bull.
I took a group of undergrad and graduate art-school students to the small tent (which was heated, as news reports reminded us) for the opening and asked for their thoughts. From the red carpet to the drinks bar, and from the friendly reminders to “tag everything #artofcan” to the sign that alerted visitors that they were being photographed for Red Bull publicity purposes, the entire event left the next generation of art stars unimpressed. I’ve collected some of their responses here.
• “Red Bull’s efforts to rebrand art were a complete success. I saw and consumed a great deal of Red Bull and very little art. Thank you Red Bull!” —Bryn Jackson
• “The event was extremely alienating. Although art was set up on plinths and the focus of the show, there seemed to be no value placed on them by the individuals hosting the show. Viewers were allowed to interact with the work as they saw fit; including instances of the work being touched. Overall the event was clearly about advertising the Red Bull brand in ways that involved hash tags, crappy repetitive music, and of course sampling beverages from the complimentary Red Bull bar.” —S. Payne
• “Since my image is possibly going be used to promote your product anyway, is there a way to clearly communicate that I’m only here to spy and that I think this is completely stupid, so you won’t use my image? #tryingtoavoidmarketableirony” —Anonymous
• “This ad posed as art exhibit shows the bleak new future of art as an exploitable realm for product placement and brand building. The youth market seems best exploited when a product becomes part of an identity. In this case the identity is that of the creative type who desperately wants to have the cultural capital of an effortless art cool.” —Emily Loving Waterfall
• “The public seemed to consider this less than fine art because of the material at the forefront. All this stuff is made out of Red Bull cans. People were touching the sculptures and getting too close for pictures…. Visitors at the Art Institute aren’t as casual about approaching work. Red Bull’s overall goal is to create publicity. When this is the ultimate aim, the art doesn’t matter just as the subject of the art doesn’t matter because the only thing attracting the public is the fact that stuff is being made out of their frequently consumed garbage.” —Paige Quinn
• “It was really hard to figure it out what was going on there, because the majority of those pieces doesn’t look like ‘art’ but were displayed like ‘art’ in the traditional way. So I guess the ‘artistic’ factor were those big white pedestals and the name of the show.” —Juan Camilo Guzmán
• “I can’t believe Red Bull actually believes that people will think what they are showing is art. I spent the majority of my time there thinking ‘What the f**k is this?’ every time I turned around…. Never has the phrase ‘this is bullshit’ been so appropriate for a situation.” —M. H.
• “The exhibition was frustrating on multiple levels. However, one of the most prevalent ones was the company’s blatant regard for art as a marketing strategy. The indifference to the levels of craftsmanship exhibited (or not exhibited) in several of the pieces bore evidence of this. If Red Bull really cared about art, perhaps it would focus on keeping the existent underground, or less privileged art spaces, around. This would certainly be a better use of time, money and ‘passion for the arts’ than building superficial exploitation venues and facilities.” —Justin Mitchell
• “This show was very strange. It was a mix of appreciating the detail that went into the specific cuts of the pieces, while also questioning whether or not these cuts were the only interesting parts about the pieces. There was an unusual sense of craft, but also an awkward sense of selling and being sold.” —Mulan Leong-Suzuki
• “One piece in the show really resonated with me. The trained elephant made out of cans, covered in sequins and tulle summed it up perfectly…a shameless promotional circus.” —R. K.
• “Not very overwhelmingly creative sculptures on display. With the exception of the cobra. That one was pretty chill. I like snakes, though.” —Coco Menk
• “Red Bullshit.” —Anonymous