Soft Brand Abstracts: Closer Than Ever Before
Femtophotography, a new development in high speed imaging, is able to capture a transient and approximate 3D image of an object located around a corner from the camera.
Trend forecasting, too, seeks to find what’s coming around the bend by making calculated guesses at the future evolution of consumers’ aesthetic desires based on planned reactions and mutations to prior trends, as well as foreseen annual stimuli including economic and environmental factors. This process creates images of two new creatures, the future consumer and the future product, who are projected to be in a state of symbiosis with eachother and endlessly advancing into different iterations.
Soft Brand Abstracts: Closer Than Ever Before takes its title from multiple sources, the first being the headline of a recent underwater expedition in New Zealand, “Deeper Than Ever Before”, that revealed previously unseen species of fish. These creatures, which exist outside the classifications and depth strata of commercial fish in the region, of course appear to have relatively bizarre body forms and colors with a “wet look” finish, which makes them a viral hit in link-sharing communities like Tumblr, Facebook, etc.
These same communities, and here I mostly refer to my own social networks within them, earn kudos and social capital (advancement) largely through sharing information and research in their daily streams, earning high reblog value on a kind of informational porn — a fetishized sensation that can be found in media or articles which activate an immediate surface lust through appearance and concept. Every contextual community has different socially molded values for what activates this lust. One can predict the types of content that will get the most or least hits among a certain content clique, and there are plenty of communal tropes. For example, in my R-U-In?S network, images of these fish will be surrounded by objects like modded motorcycles, tradeshow products, recycling symbols, articles from E-Flux, etc. While many of these communal users also post content they’ve produced, it is usually more efficient to share content they have simply re-framed or represented. From this desire for conceptual speed, many basic mutational gestures are born, such as the use of generic effects on imagery in a way that alters their conceptual delivery without costing more than five minutes of time. Popular effects include basic Photoshop modulations like liquify, a style that also shows itself in the wavy captcha text images used to discern human vision from bot vision.
Blurring, smudging, and other kinds of masking are also used to redact watermarks, logos, and identities. Watermarks on web images have already reacted to this by morphing into more abstract formations that are harder to detach from their image content.
Other blogs are no stranger to this desire for instant and impactful web images, and can often be caught employing many of the same mutation techniques.
Graphics-making communities have other tropes, like the “abstract render”: an assortment of 3D shapes and textures made in software like Cinema4D that aim to look as enticing as possible, while showing off the rendering power and virtual materials in any user’s arsenal. Like the fish in the prior example, these renders succeed in entrancing the human eye by being a mix of alien and familiar; by being both a lure and an untouchable, unrealistic object, something that seems to come from elsewhere. This otherness hints at the power of larger forces than the self, a sensation that can temporarily skew reality and create an awareness of the temporal limits of one’s body and the normal flows of visual processing. Primal instincts to seek out nutrients and biological value are aroused, and the eye takes careful time assessing the vitality and use-value of the material presented to it, searching for the communicative logic it is used to recognizing. During this stunned wait time, this capture moment, an image has a chance to make a new connection. When viewed in a specific user’s framework, the connection eventually becomes to the user themselves, to encourage following them over time and to advertise their future output. Alternatively, the user’s identity might not be at play, and the image might aim to move more anonymously in a swarm of similar content. At this point it becomes a lure for a larger framework, either the platform the content is being hosted on, or the trope holding that swarm together. The difference can be slight…sometimes intentional, sometimes not.
These rendered forms also tend to reference biological and sci-fi/fantasy tropes, partially because of the inherent abilities and options in the software. They are often posted with rendering times tallied: 5 hours, 20 minutes, etc., though as many graphics artists can tell you, this is relatively fast, and the process of making these abstract demos is not incredibly laborious — high “fav” payoff for minimal effort. The act of exploring the material essence of these softwares, too, largely depends on following lures — pushing each tool and effect in different directions based on instinct. Many abstract renders are posted as resources to be used in your own projects.
One step away from the abstract render is the act of posting your arsenal of materials as a resource, which usually includes a demo image of similarly blobject-like shapes rendered in multiple options to show off the essential properties of each. These downloads are usually clustered into diversified groups to maximize hits.
This same type of software is what is often used to make proposals for architecture, in which we see many of the same forms and textures repeated in the race between cities to seem “world class”. Here, too, what’s being shown off is rendering ability, belonging both to the firm and the culture that commissioned it. “Abstract” architecture is proof that your city is on the map, a power player on the world stage, and these rendered shapes act as formal signifiers of abundant resources. Printing these forms to real life as highly conceptualized buildings takes a million times more labor and supplies, despite their appearance of having floated in from elsewhere. The force of otherhood here could be said to posit the state, or even the global state, as a “super” natural environment.
Shininess especially seems to demonstrate value and entice lust. There are many answers as to why humans are so drawn to shininess, glossiness, and wetness. An online search of several platforms, including a blog on achromatic phenomena, a Flickr discussion group, etc., gathers these community answers:
“It harkens back to pre-historic days when early humans roamed the earth focusing their basic needs — food and shelter. Imagine the first moment when they leaned over a pool of water and saw their own likeness…what a magical moment. This is the same reason that we lust after a shiny car today. It’s modern day magic because we can see the reflection of our moving world in the lateral sides of a brand new BMW.”
“In shiny things, you can see beyond the surface. You are drawn to another dimension right through the plane.”
“shiny=energy like the energy of the sun, reminiscent of life force and therefore very attractive to us human beings shine=health like healthy hair — the opposite is dull, lifeless, shiny imparts a sense of clean, new or well taken care of”
“I think it is because they keep changing so hard to form an image of them. Endlessly interesting because never constant.”
“Because things who shine might be valuable metals. Keeping them gives a chance of inventing a weapon.”
Shininess in nature often imparts a sense of rarity or ecological power, and wetness is usually a sign of some kind of vital interface that is ready for your interaction. The wet look is a well established sexual fetish, partially because the act of seeing wet (or seemingly wet) things also invokes the feeling of being wet, or of contact with wet surfaces that gently cling. Wetness can also cover a large territory quickly, fluidly.
The other title inspiration comes as a BASF color trend report from Japan for vehicles in 2011–2013 titled “Come Closer”. In it, top vehicle colors are predicted by global region, with each palette reflecting the cultural condition of that area’s population. As stated in their introduction, the “Come Closer” theme “reaffirms the importance of human ties and coexistence with nature,” suggesting that contemporary vehicle consumers are trying to get closer to their environments and reflect them through the color of automotive paint. This paint is often the topcoat, the fetish finish, to motorcycles and cars. It’s the wet interface between two creatures, or two environments.
The term “abstract” has become loaded in the art world, but in the world of product development can still simply mean a plan or a notion for the future. The product abstract is an imaginative arena with its own set of possibilities and goals. New products, especially new technological devices, are still some of the most exciting art objects around, and the image of the future product usually serves as pure enticement — a trailer for what may or may not come. All the viewer really needs to recognize are a few features and a legitimate branded framework, the rest is filled in by hype.
Those writing and speaking about trends, too, aim for abstraction in a sense, that is they aim to feel out and pronounce the “next” of things before it has been rendered into familiarity by a thousand other platforms. By claiming and reporting on abstract vibes sooner, one forecaster gets ahead of the game. Our alleged desires are rendered through mutant visions and vocabulary until cool-hunting gets dangerously close enough to get a better look. Here comes the long tail.
Similarly to the abstract render, product design often aims for a sensation of newness, of “alien” provenance and end-of-world nextness that still seems somehow within reach. New materials and interfaces are proposed in these images for hype value only. Contemporary products also tend to employ many of the same fetish textures and forms — glossy, biomorphic, etc. The effect aims to express this same creaturehood: the appearance of intelligence so advanced that it appears as a living, adapting process. Yet a lot of needless or redundant mutations also make their way into the fray. Many of these products will never be made, acting as a momentary lure into branded territory.
Soft branding refers to a strategy in which various iterations of a brand may not include every element in the brand’s array of visual signifiers (brand canvas), but the essence of a company and its product are still somehow present. For instance, Starbucks employs soft branding to replicate the commercial art direction of smaller, local coffee establishments by creating spaces without many of its signature interior designs or logo, but with the same essential product and underlying franchise structure. This allows them to mimic, aggregate, and possibly destroy a more diverse pool of options with their own monopoly. The big fish replicates itself into smaller, varying fish which mimic the naturally diversified pool. By having more choices under their umbrella, and by almost bootlegging themselves and others, they gain more interfaces with customers who may have avoided them otherwise. No need to compete with, collaborate with, or buy out the competition when you can simply reproduce and rebrand it. The array of options available to the end consumer instead becomes a cluster of nodes of a single meta option which is mirroring the idea of diversification to you, not unlike the logic behind making a product in multiple, fruit-like colors.
Soft branding works in other ways too, for instance many retail franchises that take on varying “local” characteristics through merchandise and interior design, but which are essentially still the same brand (H&M for example). Or it can refer to the act of subtle, contextually on-brand product placement inside other promotional vehicles like music videos or films.
It was largely present in the U.S. Pavilion in the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, where corporations were relied on for funding in lieu of government or cultural groups. This led each media element to be an advertisement with or without making it directly clear. LCD screens with cloud footage on them became tagged with American Airlines in the end and were indeed sponsored.
Whether or not this sold any tickets on site is irrelevant, the point is to colonize and demarcate certain types of imagery with the association of a brand for a later payoff. These brand epics are lifelong, cinematic storylines.
We can imagine soft branding as a mobile, liquid camouflage that continually morphs into different enticing forms leading to the same end scenario, or as a type of slippery language — a meme that attaches to the contexts and visual surfaces around us, aggregating and reprogramming the act of recognizing toward a consumer lineage.
The disambiguation of a single term or image, a single sign, can now include a handful of brand definitions as more and more visual and verbal territory is claimed. It has come into vogue at the same time as the term soft power, which has military beginnings but is now shorthand for a country’s prowess through the cultural technology of being viral. Soft power now refers to media and products — to a place’s language, fashion, music, art, film, and “style”.
Soft power also operates as a vaguely double entendre, as the misappropriation of cultural output remains a contested topic in anthropological debates, but this misappropriation simultaneously acts as a sign of a culture’s everpresent reach. When you’ve been bootlegged, misused, replicated, or ripped off, you also know you’ve reached a wide enough audience to be considered viral and active in a cultural exchange. You know you’ve successfully become part of the landscape, and all that comes with it. Many cultural exports work as agents inside this camouflaged submission-as-dominance, a game made endlessly more complex by the internet.
As all these traveling forms comingle, they also affect and infect eachother. The constant pressure to be aware and innovate as well as be unique among an array of similar exports pushes ideas and identities together into genres and tropes but then urges them to fight and separate, to diversify among eachother so that the supposed life force of the process urges on and expands.
These processes don’t merely inform the visual and tactile mutation of end products, they also affect the brand vocabulary.
For as much as companies constantly strive for the sensation of mythical otherness, especially with an ecological twinge, marketing and research language comes up with counter adaptations to support and detail their production trajectories. Both structures create their own self-fulfilling prophecies, their own hashtags and self-reflexive fantasy image maps.
Bootlegs also begin to create newly disambiguated arrays with their own parasitic logic. While Sony tries to trademark an endless list of linguistic combinations, bootleg brands break the Sony territory itself into a diversified cluster of geographies, price points, and slightly scrambled brand impressions.
Bootleg brands have hit a peak wave in the last decade. The once illicit and resourceful thrill of signifying a major brand for more intimate gain is now a pasttime so casual and popular that any Tumblr user with Photoshop or silkscreen tools can create an “empire” of micro fake brands or illegally printed clothing in a heartbeat. Some of these rebrands create new meaning or operate in new kinds of systems, many simply tweak the read into a congruent product for a similar profit structure, with or without an ironic cultural filter. Still, even this simple act diversifies the logic, whether or not it gets reabsorbed by the bigger entity.
Blogs and tags aggregate fake branded products from around the world, making it easier to see a meta image of all the ways in which the language has traveled and changed. This removes some of the shock value of spotting a fake brand in the wild…among my own peer group a bootleg or a suspicious brand is almost more expected than a legit logo, as microcultures hold more relevance than megacorporations.
There is also a misconception that these kinds of systems, structures, and images are corporate only, that this is solely the study of corporations. But these things come into play in nature and culture-at-large as well, and in fact that’s exactly what companies, brands, and non-profits of all sizes are trying to mimic. They display themselves and these tactics as natural, cultural. These languages are everywhere, they are in the street, the bazaar, the mall, in music and art. Many languages are, of course, mixed together, with different coding existing together in one experience. By studying the corporate reflection and ambiguation of cultural devices, though, by looking its big-fishlens in the eye, we can realize both the familiarity and the fetishized distance between culture and product. We can recognize that at times, culture becomes product, and vice versa, but that they are still in separate realms with separate purposes, and it takes very specific conditions for a “soft media” crossover. We can recognize that culture (and its communal and self imaging) is a device, a set of codes, and a technology in itself, which may sound blatant but is in no way meant as dystopian. It elevates art and the humanities to the importance of technology and product in society-at-large. They are, at the same time, something far more powerful and less formulaic than these attempts to control and classify them.
by Kari Altmann
*Continually updated and edited
Requested and commissioned for PLATFORM by the Hirshhorn Museum & Goethe Institute, curated by Melanie Bühler, Nov 2012
Reblogged in print for NERO MAGAZINE, Milan, Issue #31, 2013
Reblogged in print for PLATFORM, Amsterdam, 2014–2015
Delivered as a presentation for THE SWISS INSTITUTE, New York, in 2015
See the full #softbrandabstracts series at softbrandabstracts.org
Originally published at karialtmann.com.