Lisa Rovner and Alice Heart’s project, “Message is the Medium,” is composed of beautifully blended fragments from Godard films, Guy Bordin film clips, or elegant vintage footage with brands such as Agnes B., the New York Times‘ Style Magazine, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle Perfume, and other high-end labels. The results represent the associations between the disparate images and the timeless essences of the labels better than many of their own contemporary ad campaigns. But is that art, or artistic advertising? Rovner and Heart were not commissioned to create the videos. So are they really just well-crafted valentines to the labels that they love?
Here I discuss their joint video project, “Message is the Medium,” which named as a reference to cultural critic Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 study “The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” with Rovner and Heart, who answer as a duo.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: How do you distinguish between selling art and using art to sell?
LISA ROVNER AND ALICE HEART: I’m not sure we’ve thought about that question enough. We’d like to live in a world where one wouldn’t have to… Like William Burroughs: images, millions of images, that’s what we eat. We are interested in using the space of advertising to convey messages. We see mass media as an art material, and a curatorial space.
HONIGMAN: Is that your motto?
ROVNER/HEART: Our motto is: MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM is marching back into the future MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM is contradicting the aesthetic conformity of the new MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM is creative observation and creative viewing MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM is remaking the world of advertising in the language of our times.
HONIGMAN: When you say “using advertising media as sites for works of art,” it sounds like you’re making more artistic ads. I’d definitely respect and desire these brands more if they commissioned these ads from you. Would you work directly with these, or any, brands?
ROVNER/HEART: Yes. All of them. The idea is to use real things to speak of unreal things–and just as much, to confront vague ideas with clear images.
HOIGMAN: Godard is a regular reference for you. Are you incorporating his work because his aesthetic suits certain labels or, in the case of Agnes B, because he is directly part of the label’s heritage? Or is your interest in him that he was a pioneering appropriation artist and his work played heavily and playfully with issues of authenticity?
ROVNER/HEART: Both. We are drawn to Godard’s revolutionary spirit. He was radical and engaged. He makes you think and fall in love. We too would like to make poetic collages made up of homages to history’s masters… And make people think and fall in love.
HONIGMAN: Are the labels that you reference ones that you personally like and buy?
ROVNER/HEART: They are definitely culturally relevant brands that we pretend to understand and even identify with. But what initially drew us to those brands is their identity and their visibility..
HONIGMAN: Do you think that Marshall McLuhan’s examination of advertising’s effects on society from the sixities and his criticism consumer ad culture has made consumers or advertisers more savvy?
ROVNER/HEART: Did you know that the title of his book, The Mechanical Bride, is derived from a piece by Marcel Duchamp? The book dealt with the influence of print media on the male and female psyche. The objective of advertising men, said McLuhan, is the manipulation, exploitation, and control of the individual. One would hope people today have some understanding of media in these terms. But it’s crazy to think how little the advertisers’ methods have changed. Have you seen The Century of the Self? It’s a British television documentary film by Adam Curtis. [The description from BBC’s website reads: “Sigmund Freud’s work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.”]
HONIGMAN: Is that where your name comes from?
ROVNER/HEART: In 1969, Yoko Ono pronounced, “The message is the medium” an inversion of and rebuttal to McLuhan’s famous formulation. She is the true origin of our name. But McLuhan did call advertising “the greatest art form of the 20th century.”