BRIGHTON, UK — On a rainy Saturday in the West Midlands, mild anarchy has broken out in a corner shop. It’s a very British kind of anarchy, since it involves the disruption of a retail space (it was Napoleon who once said we were a nation of shopkeepers), but it is a potent form of confusion, because visitors to Ashby Square News may all be coming to the same conclusion: if we had to, we could live without brands.
In the shop, some 500 items have been repackaged with new branding developed in workshops with members of the local community: schoolchildren, mental health service users, people with addictions, and so on. New names have been stenciled on drink cans, sweet jars relabeled in crayon. Liquor has been recontextualized with brown paper bagging. Some participants have even gone so far as to mock up new front pages of newspapers and magazines.
The effect is to take the sheen off all this merchandise, with an expedient handmade aesthetic in which stickers and rubber bands effect rough-and-ready renamings, ranging from the caustic to the fanciful. In an age of cuddly brands that want to be your friend, the products on sale here offer a real chance to connect with a real local participant, and the overall look echoes bustling market stalls rather than distant marketing brainstorms.
The subversive handiwork was instigated by artist Kathrin Böhm, together with Harry Blackett and Robin Kirkham from graphic design studio An Endless Supply. Brand News, as the project is called, was a commission by Loughborough University via arts programming body Radar. This takeover is an early part of a four-month strand of contemporary art events brought together with the thematic title Market Town.
Provincial UK market towns like this are not known for being a hotbed of contemporary art. But as local press and television news crowd around the till, and shop-owner and good sport Anita serves her customers mysterious chocolate bars, Böhm and her small crew stand out in the drizzle, enjoying the sight of a newsagent façade with Adbuster-style doctored signage for the National Lottery (which now offers “Instant” rebranding) and Moneygram (sending “peace” around the world). Some passersby double-take; some don’t notice at all. Either is fine by the team here, who are just delighted that their host organization appears to be doing a brisk trade.
One assumes that most commercial galleries would love to drum up this much business. “That was a key thing,” Böhm told Hyperallergic, “to take a public space, rather than a gallery. Because this space has a low threshold and everybody knows how to use a shop, and brands are something people think they’re familiar with.” She’s worked with brands before, and says they function as a “common denominator.”
Böhm had nothing against shops per se, nor brands, nor the businesses with whom she sometimes works. And you may wonder how this unusual collaboration came about. “We quite literally walked in and said, ‘We really like your shop and we think it’s special, it looks like a space you really care about,’” Böhm says. When she explained her idea for a collaboration, the shopkeepers said, “Why not?”
That decision wasn’t a surprise to Böhm. “I think a lot of people have their routine,” she says. “You do the same thing every day. You’re stuck in a role. You’re the shopkeeper. You’re selling tobacco and you’re selling newspapers and that’s your role.” Whereas participatory artworks, something the German artist has made a specialty, offer something different: the chance “to be perceived differently, to express something you normally can’t express within an everyday setting.”
For the shop’s customers, she hopes that Brand News offers “a moment to realize that this is the way we shop and choose, and [that] who we shop with is a conscious decision.” Böhm’s project offers consumers a chance to reconsider their own patterns of behavior and, she adds, to realize that, quite apart from the logos and packaging, “there’s actual value to certain things like a good shopkeeper.” It’s not the most radical message in contemporary art, but if you had the good fortune to meet the cheerful family running this hijacked store, you would agree.
A few streets away in the Carillon shopping center another related pop-up art event is confusing the local shoppers. This is Market Town Corner, a retail unit that doubles as a research center, where illustrator Peter Nencini and designer Robert Sollis are investigating the visual identity of Loughborough itself. The pair have been walking the streets and collecting photographs, sketches, and objects that tell the story of this seemingly unremarkable place.
“We were always uncomfortable with the notion of a place being defined as something simplified and becoming finished,” says Robert, with reservations that most designers would not recognize. “I think any place, however much you study it, is always infinitely more complicated. There’s always people you haven’t met and there’s always layers of history which are the complexities of the place.” As a result of this examination, the duo are hoping to create an open-ended piece of bricolage to conclude their ongoing project.
For those who don’t know Loughborough, Market Town Corner is a revelation. The 60,000-strong town is home to the UK’s leading sports university, the nation’s best-loved children’s book publisher Ladybird, and one of the country’s last two remaining bell foundries. And naturally it has a market, one to which the wind and rain show no mercy, along with a glut of low-rent stores selling e-cigarettes, mobile phone cases, and household products for £1. Those from Leicester, Derby, and Nottingham, the three cities that surround us, will suffer from the lack of High Street brands by which to orient oneself.
Sollis, however, is clear that Market Town Corner is not a rebranding project. “The word ‘brand’ is quite loaded,” he says, “because it suggests that something has an economic value and can be thought of in an economic way.” He echoes Kathrin Böhm when he claims not to be “anti-brand”: “I think brands play a role, but I feel uncomfortable with brands of places, because … to brand a place is to think of the place as a product, since brands are usually applied to products, and a product is usually much more understandable as a take-it-or-leave-it thing. Whereas a place — you can’t really take it or leave it if you live there. You have to be part of it, so you don’t have the choice to opt out or opt in.”
Whether you live in one of the world’s greatest cities or one of the UK’s most overlooked one-horse towns, you will also, in the 21st century, inhabit a brandscape. None of us can opt out of that, but in Loughborough, for the time being, we can at least reconsider it.
Market Town programming continues throughout Loughborough throughout March and April, including the launch of a billboard commission on March 28 and a series of lectures on April 27–29. For full details on upcoming Market Town programs, click here.