What Global Content Marketers Can Learn from Contemporary Visual Arts
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What Global Content Marketers Can Learn from Contemporary Visual Arts

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Venice Biennale, 2001. I was walking in the Giardini di Castello when a man who wasn’t there told me the best story I’ve never heard. Let me explain.

Richard SerraThat man was sculptor Richard Serra, and the story was not told to me—I imagined it. However, it was my walk through one of Serra’s monumental steel structures arranged in curves and spirals which suggested to me the perfect, if abstract, story arc: the start as I entered the spiral, an inciting incident when the twisted walls altered my experience of space, the threat of a summer storm overhead, and a denouement when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Some may think that art and marketing differ in that the marketing storyteller cannot rely so much on the subjective glance of their audience, but I don’t believe that’s completely true. The mission of global content strategists looks very much like what Richard Serra does. With the help of their locally-based writers, brands have to tailor storytelling for people that live many miles away and may not even speak the same language, and they need to find ways to be heard even if they don’t actually do the talking.

Although it’s years old at this point, one of my favorite video spots is BMW’s “Do you enjoy driving?” The way I see it, its reliance on the subjectivity of the viewer is exactly what allows it to achieve the same effect that the sculptor provokes with his structures. It places the viewer in the driver’s seat and simply lets him put his imagination to work.

Here are some ideas that visual arts afford to global marketers.

1. Learn Different Storytelling Techniques

The number of exhibitions in the last few years on art and storytelling proves that the issue is highly topical. One of these art shows is StoryBook: Narrative in Contemporary Art, displayed last year at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wisconsin. Both artists and marketers are well acquainted with the most conventional narrative techniques explored there, so I’d rather look at contemporary innovations in storytelling, like the following:

  • The Old Story Revisited: In his painting Ursa Memoriam (1998), artist Erick Weisenburger recalls the story of Saint Sebastian whom the emperor ordered to be shot to death with arrows for betraying him. Here, Weisenburger portrays Saint Sebastian as a bear, alluding to the traditional tale but subverting the character, which in turn allows the viewer to create his own fantastical narrative. The effectiveness in this type of storytelling relies on the audience’s collective consciousness of the original narrative, but when they are aware of it, the originality and room to imagine it can produce a powerful impact.

  • The Story Detached from Its Context: Not only isolated from the sequence of events, this type of story is independent of any pre-existent narrative as well. Take Robert Barnes’ painting, Ragno’s Place (1981). As the brochure of the exhibition asks: “What is the man fleeing from? Has he caused or is he the victim of all the wreckage around him?”

The first unconventional storytelling technique, “the old story revisited,” is not unknown in marketing, but it offers many unexplored possibilities for the more tuned-in audiences. If a brand’s consumers are familiar with a storyline, why not twist it?

We need not go far to find examples of the second. Many publishers, the Content Standard included, often use images that depict action or suspense, or a simple object without much context, leaving space to pique viewer’s interest in the content. It’s a great way of addressing a global audience at an age where they seek engaging stories that put them in the experience.

2. Rediscover the Story Form

The relationship between narrative and visual arts is always changing. For much of the modernist period, form took precedence over narrative. In contemporary art, though, and especially after 1980, storytelling gained momentum as a means to convey personal, political, and social issues in documentary or confessional formats.

The second event I want to discuss is The Storyteller, a touring exhibition that traveled in 2010 from New York to Toronto and Madrid, where I saw a film-only version.

For marketers, it would be interesting to note that the new generation of artists present in the show, contrary to their immediate predecessors, doesn’t reject the idea of fact-based documentary. What artists like Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis seek is to enable their audience to contribute their unique point of view as an active part of a current event. In The Battle of Orgreave, they reconstruct the violent strikes of the eighties in England with many of the people who took part originally (although sometimes in reverse roles).

Here you can see some of the pieces of The Storyteller in a video by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Branded documentaries are thriving in cause marketing, and it may be a great idea for product videos to take from visual arts both the disposition to embrace a cause (even if it’s controversial) and to let the audience intervene. Watch this case study about United Way Worldwide (a Skyword client).

3. Borrow Brand New Ways of Telling Stories

If you want to be bold in your next story, a third exhibition comes to my mind from which you can draw inspiration. Storylines was on display in New York’s Guggenheim Museum last summer (check out its website for an interactive content experience, featuring artists like Shannon Ebner, Mariana Castillo, Catherine Opie or Gabriel Orozco)

This art show makes the perfect reference for those storytellers who want to break free from the traditional narrative elements (plot, character, setting), and instead use the cultural associations found in everyday objects, materials, and tasks.

Here are two stories without a plot. The first is Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing. The second,Gabriel Orozco’s Astroturf Costellation, pictures of a collection of minuscule forms of debris left behind by athletes and spectators in the AstroTurf of a playing field.

Catherine Opie Gabriel Orozco. Astroturf Costellation. Image Guggenheim Museum, New York

In both cases, the viewers themselves need to make up the plot through cultural associations.

From the Richard Serra example on, the subjectivity of the spectator or reader appears again and again as the key storytelling factor, so maybe this is the lesson for global marketers to be found in contemporary visual arts. Our next subject could well be its best expression in the near future, given the participative nature of virtual reality.

4. Meet Virtual Reality, the Storytelling of the Future

Austrian-born art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich used to say that in art there’s always a struggle between the impulse to represent what we know and what we see. Think of the Egyptians. For them, “everything had to be represented from its most characteristic angle,” as Gombrich wrote. This means the head is in profile, as it’s more easily seen, the eye from the front, the way we usually imagine it. Now think of the impressionists and their defiance to the concept that every object has “its definite fixed form and color which must be easily recognizable in a picture.”

Virtual reality is possibly a way, if not to decide the battle, at least for artists and public to share more closely what they know and what they see—a very stimulating idea for content strategists.

According to Dylan Kerr in Artspace, Sarah Rothberg’s Memory/Place (2015) might be the first true virtual-reality art masterpiece, as she manages to overcome the static nature of her predecessors’ work and make the medium her own. Other initiatives that can give an idea of all the potential of virtual reality are Mark Farid’s attempt to immerse himself for 28 days in another person’s life, and BeAnotherLab created by researchers at the University of Barcelona:

Marketers are already using this immersive new medium in different ways, including video marketing, and I’m sure that art will help identify the VR marketing storytelling techniques that work best.

Before this article comes to an end, let me tell you something about the modern cliche of the enmity between artists and businesses. It’s a hoax. The best American poet of the last century was probably Wallace Stevens, the vice-president of an insurance company, and not a counter-cultural rebel. Artists are also marketers, whether it is of ideas, products, or actions. Collaboration between artists and businesses do exist and will continue to exist. It provides one side with the resources to experiment and the contact with reality and the other side with the possibility to use the best talent, whether it is filmmakers, architects, or writers.

As Gombrich wisely said, “If we do not ask [artists] to do anything in particular, what right have we got to blame them if their work appears to us obscure and aimless?”

Finally, I’d like to recommend two good readings about art, where you can find more ideas on your own. Denis Dutton applies in The Art Instinct the principles of evolutionary psychology to revolutionize the way visual arts are understood. Art Since 1900 is a collection of essays written by four of the most influential art historians of our time, colleagues at the MIT’s art journal, October.

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