Follow the Yellow Arrows: An Interview with Michael Counts (Part Two)

Well, in the midst of running this interview with Michael Counts about environmental advertising and spatial storytelling, it turns out that a major controversy has been brewing in Boston over the past two days about environmental advertising. To be specific, The Cartoon Network had placed a series of flashing light displays promoting Aqua Hunger Force at various locations around major cities, including apparently under some bridges in Boston. You can see what the displays looked like in this image produced by CMS alum Rekha Murthy and distributed via Flickr. rekha.jpg

Here's what happened next according to one news report:

A television network's marketing campaign went badly awry on Wednesday, causing a day-long security scare in Boston that closed bridges, shut major roads and put hundreds of police on alert.

Apologising for Boston's biggest security alert since the September 11 attacks more than five years ago, Turner Broadcasting said it had placed electronic devices at bridges and other spots to promote an animated cartoon.

Police mistook the small, battery-powered electronic billboards as possible improvised bombs.

The discovery of the first one on a bridge led police to stop morning rush-hour traffic on an interstate highway just north of Boston, halt a busy train line, cordon off the area and deploy a bomb squad, which blew it up.

By afternoon, at least nine more of the "suspicious" devices were found. Authorities mobilised emergency crews, federal agents, bomb squads, hundreds of police officers and the US Coast Guard as traffic froze in parts of the city....

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he was prepared to sue.

"It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," he said. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today's incidents."

The alarm prompted the Coast Guard to close the Charles River that runs through the city and caused authorities to shut down major bridges along with several roads.

"This has taken a significant toll on our resources," Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told reporters.

Sam Ford offers a much more detailed analysis and the incident over at the Convergence Culture Consortium blog than I can provide at the present time. It has clearly proven to be a hot button issue for lots of people, sparking a debate which circles around contemporary advertising practices, the "liberal bias" of the media, the breakdown of communications, and the hair trigger response of governments to any perceived threats in a "post-9/11" society. Lots for us to dissect here for some time to come.

I should note, as Ford does, that Turner is a sponsor of the Consortium and that we were not consulted in any ways about what they planned and executed in this case.

Meanwhile, let's return to our regularly scheduled interview with Michael Counts in which he discusses the Yellow Arrow project and its relationship to his background in popular theater. For more background on Yellow Arrow and Counts, check out yesterday's post.

Many critics see media as distracting us from the world around us, yet your projects seem to be using media to force us to look at the real world from a different perspective. Is that a fair summary of your focus?

Yes. A different perspective and one that celebrates each individual's unique perspective. As so many aspects of our culture are doing right now -- from myspace to youtube -- we have been interested in the value and significance of the subjective and commonplace. So many things today seem to be driving towards the idea that the "ordinary" is in fact quite extraordinary if you can find the right vantage point.

Your work tends to blur the lines between art and advertising. Many of your early projects are treated as independent theatrical productions yet your current website seems to be pitching many of these same techniques and practices to potential corporate clients. Can you say something about the ways you walk the lines between these two worlds? Why might a commercial client today be drawn to techniques that might have seemed experimental and out there even a few years ago?*

If Yellow Arrow is an effort to help people find things in all categories that they might be looking for out in the "real world" by allowing others to publish their thoughts, ideas, histories and the like, there is no reason in my mind that products or brands shouldn't be a part of that. One of my favorite stories that I heard about Yellow Arrow being applied successfully involved someone who had posted an arrow pointing out a cool coffee place in San Francisco at which the owner made one outstanding coffee at a time and paid great attention to detail -- that the experience of being there and talking with the owner was quite memorable. The original post was found by another guy who was going to San Francisco and looking for interesting things to do -- not the everyday tourist stuff. He followed the original post, went to the coffee shop, experienced what the original poster had described and used the "comment" feature of YA which sent a text to the original poster at that moment - meanwhile, he was back in Australia. This created a link between the two guys and a sort of reward for the guy who originally found and "mapped" this spot - others had followed in his path and enjoyed his recommendation. In truth, the coffee guy is a brand and his establishment commercial. People are looking for all sorts of things and YA and projects like it should simply help people find them -- brands too. The problem, I think, emerges when brands (or individuals for that matter) lie or try to get people to engage with them at all costs like so much modern advertising has done. To me that type of business practice will increasingly be a thing of the past. If the guy who posted the original anecdote about the excellent coffee was the coffee guy himself and his coffee sucked, few would follow the advice after one or a few people caught on. Hopefully this type of blogging, be it on-line or using text messaging, will keep us honest and help good things and interesting and hidden histories find those who are looking for them.

Tell us more about your roots in experimental theatre. Reading through your portfolio, it sounds like from the very beginning you were attracted to the idea of mobile art -- moving the theatre patron through space rather than having them sit in a fixed position inside a theatre -- and urban projections-- such as projecting faces onto clocktowers or setting up screens in unexpected locations.

My interest in theatre was less about "theatre" really and more about creating unique and compelling experiences for people - I simply found that theatre had the best tools. The type of theatre I made didn't sit the audience outside of the action but instead included the audience -- in effect, my productions cast the audience in the show. The best example was a fairly large production of Dante's Divine Comedy ("So Long Ago I Can't Remember", 2001) set in 13 installations in a 40,000 square foot warehouse that took 100 people or so at time on an actual journey. Instead of telling the audience the story of The Divine Comedy this production cast the audience in the role of Dante and offered a similar type of experience. For 10 years or so I was making this type of show and then began to read stuff like Pine and Gilmore's Experience Economy and John Beck's Got Game and, of course, your book Convergence Culture. To me immersive entertainment, travel, culture, what-have-you, is where everything is going. To paraphrase John Beck, the audience today needs to be at the center of the action, the hero of the story, because that has been their primary relationship to the dominant media experience shaping their world view - video games and the like.

What drives this interest in mobility and urban space?

A desire to enrich our (and by "our" I mean everyone's) experience of the world. Though a little heady, John Cage once said, "structure without life is dead, life without structure is unseen." I think things like Yellow Arrow and the growing number of projects and ideas that are pointing in a similar direction are about providing that "structure" and, of course, connecting people.