Friedrich von Borries

Nike Town: a Corporate Situationism

Portrait © Annaïk Anyouzoo / Creative Commons

Since the late 1990s, the world's leading brands have used sophisticated communication techniques to give their image a set of values, an attitude, a way of life. Nike is one of the international brands using the branding techniques theorized by Naomi Klein in 2000 in the book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (ed. Knopf Canada, Picador, 2000). Nike approaches these techniques by mimicking counter-culture and discreetly taking possession of the urban space. In the era of intangible capitalism, are Western cities not the commercial achievement of the Situationist conception of urban space which condemned the disenchanted urbanism of the modern functional city and intended to "affirm the city as a laboratory of a playful revolution in everyday life "?

Friedrich von Borries is an architect, curator and professor of design theory.

(The text is an rewised excerpt of “Who’s Afraid of Niketown”, episode publishers, Rotterdam 2005.)

Nike's urbanism shows similarities with drastic urban critiques as well as with the emphatic model of a “different city for a different life” advocated by the Situationists, the artist group once gathered around Guy Debord. What brings us close to the Situationists today is the radical critique of the rationalism of modernity and of social alienation, as well as the resultant demand for a new kind of urban development, for a different way of perceiving the city, of reading and using it. On this point, intriguing parallels are detectable with the critique of the city given expression in Nike's campaigns. Such comparisons fail to do justice to the artistic and political motifs of the Situationists, who radically opposed Capitalism.Debord, Guy, Die Gesellschaft des Spektakels, Berlin: 1996, p. 10.

Meanwhile, the imaginary Niketown is born of Capitalism itself, it is an apotheosis of the Capitalist city. This comparison does not attempt to reappraise the content or the intentions of the Situationist movement, but instead to broaden the discourse about Nike's urban interventions.

Bolzplatz, Nike, Berlin, 2005

The situationist city: with or against the Niketown?

For if we apply a Situationist template to Nike's urban interventions, we arrive at a problematic that goes to the heart of Niketown and its model of the city as a brand specific experiential space: Is Niketown the affirmative fulfillment – now transformed into commercialized form – of the vision of a Situationist city: is this ‘Corporate Situationism’?

Another City for Another Life: At the center of the Situationist movement stands a confrontation with the city as the experiential sphere of everyday life. “The urbanism of the Situationists was directed against an obsolete and impoverished functionalism, and proclaimed the testing of the city as a laboratory for the playful revolutionizing of everyday life. Planning and building were to have been nothing less than the realization of a philosophy, a collective Gesamtkunstwerk.”Xavier Costa, “Le grand jeu à venir – Situationistischer Städtebau,” Daidalos 67, Berlin: 1998, p. 74.

The Situationist city was to have generation of chance events, achiving them by the incessant transformation and reversal of hegemonic conditions. Accordingly, they wanted to supplant functionalist zoning with a city of play and adventure: “We demand adventure. Some people are searching for it on the moon, since they can no longer find in on Earth. First and foremost, we are always committed to a transformation on this planet. We intend to create situations – new situations. We take account of the rupture of the laws that inhibit the development of effective activities in life and in culture. We stand at the threshold of a new age, and already today we are seeking to conceptualize an image of a happy life and a unitary urbanism – an urbanism for pleasure.”Constant, “Another City for Another Life,” cited in Wigley, Mark, Constant’s New Babylon, Rotterdam: 1998.

Einfürhung, Bolzplatz inauguration poster, Berlin, 2005

The ideal of the Situationists was urban situations, “constructions of a different kind, which should lead toward radically new forms of life”.Thomas Y. Levin, “Der Urbanismus der Situationisten,” arch+ 139/140, Berlin: 1998, p. 70.

This city is characterized by the emergence of fortuitous events, movements, continuous change. “One day, we will build cities for wandering.”Debord, "Théorie des Dérivés’, cited in ibid, p. 75. The city of the future, as imagined by the Situationists, is a city of experiences, of dis-covery, of rebellions against the compulsions of a regimented life. “Every street, every animated square, could be the entrance to a metropolis, a prelude to a discovery through which life opens up, through which new faces are perceptible, with habits shed and familial duties or regulated professional lives now regarded as marginal epiphenomena, by which a free movement no longer cares to be disturbed.”Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivan), ‘Formular für einen neuen Urbanismus’, in I.S. NR 1, cited in Ohrt, Roberto, Phantom Avantgarde, Hamburg: 1990, p. 50. The architect of this city is no longer the designer of individual buildings, he is the creator of processes and atmospheres that allow room for the unfolding of individual freedom.

The fantastic city in place of the functionalist city

The analysis of the real-existing city as a functionalist, inhumane space, and the dream of a free city as counterproject: Here are the intersections between historical Situationism and Nike's urban, experiential brand spaces. The imaginary Niketown, as the scenarization or simulation of a better reality, responds with exactitude to the drawbacks of the contemporary city as analysed by the Situationists: The absence of the magical, the unknown, the unforeseeable.

Bolzplatz, Nike, Berlin, 2005

The urban brand spaces, then, emerge within voids of meaning torn open by the functionalism of contemporary urbanism, which subdivides the city in functional terms while seeking to extirpate everything wicked, abysmal, dark. The fan-tastic city, the dreaming city, the different city, that of desire and of secrets, has vanished, sanitized in the process of modernization, and divided into residence, living, working. Today, we are confronted by an emotionless, aseptic city, whose sole alternative, apparently, is the artificial experiential space. The newly emerging brand worlds, hence, are also characterized as places of re-enchantmentMatthias Sellmann and Wolfgang Isenberg, “Die Wiederverzauberung der Welt,” Matthias Sellmann and Wolfgang Isenberg (eds.), Konsum als Religion, Mönchengladbach: 2000. to which a spiritual surplus may be attributed, Norbert Bolz, “Der spirituelle Mehrwert der Maske,” Vortrag auf dem Werbekongress, Berlin: 2003. in the sense that they accommodate moments of the spiritual, of the non-logically deducible, within the disenchanted world of Modernity. Or, as Situationist Gilles Ivan has characterized the task of a future urbanism: “A rational expansion of the old religious systems, the old fairy tales, and especially psychoanalysis, becomes more urgent every day, to the degree that passion increasingly vanishes. Everyone will, so to speak, occupy his own cathedral. There will be spaces that permit better dreaming than drugs; houses in which one can only love (...) The quarters of this city could correspond to the catalog of the various feelings encountered accidentally in the normal course of living.”Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivan), ‘Formular für einen neuen Urbanismus’, in op.cit., p. 71. Would not such a city be the dream of any urban marketing?

Bolzplatz, Nike, Berlin, 2005

Détournement and Fakes as Marketing Illusions

As one of their methods for bringing a Situationist city into being, Debord and Wolman developed the strategy of détournement, of reversal and misappropriation. Détournement relates both to objects and to spaces, to actions as well as to methods of perception. The core of détournement is to tear an object from its original context and to situate it in a new one, but in such a way that it still refers to its original context, with this multiple referentiality making new modes of reading possible. Détournement takes place when someone, to use a famous example, wanders through the Harz Mountains carrying a city map of London. “All elements, no matter what their sources, can become objects of new contexts.”Debord/Wolman, ‘Gebrauchsanweisung für Zweckentfremdung,’ 1956, cited in Levin, op. cit., p. 73. The strategy of détournement can be understood, then, as a means of communication that serves, through reversal and irritation, to convey critical new contents and to subtly enable novel experiences. Subterfuge and irritation are essential functional mechanisms. Out of the strategy of détournement, developed in the 1970s, evolved the fun and communication guerillaLuther Blisset and Sonja Brünzels, Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla, Hamburg, Berlin, Göttingen: 1998, p. 65ff. , who made the fake an important element of action-oriented media and social critique. “A successful fake plays with the classifications of author and text. Its effectiveness unfolds precisely where it permits no unambiguous references to emerge: At this moment, the meanings of the affected statement begin to oscillate, and new interpretations become evident and available. With the fake, the principle of interpretative variability, which acts in conventional processes of communication as an unavoidable disturbance factor, is the foundation that makes the fake's mode of communication possible in the first place. The fake wants not to be taken literally, but instead to trigger reflections about the originator and the content of the message.”Ibid., p. 67.

The Situationist strategy of the fake and of détournement can be discovered as an instrument of communication in nearly all of Nike's urban interventions. They serve here the same function as they do with the Situationists and media guerillas, namely to gain access to new spaces of interpretation and opportunities for reflection. But with Nike, the brand stands in the foreground, not the political statement. The signs on the Bolzplätze, with their interdictions (‘Enter at your own risk’; ‘No bottles’) are intended to trigger exactly the same mechanisms in the target group which Blisset/Brünzels have described as the effects of the fake. This strategy is found in multiple forms in Nike's campaigns, whether on posters (“There are more ball courts than you think. One of them is right under this poster.” Niketown opening, 1999), or in Happening style actions. As when a group of young artists (accompanied by the requisite media) stormed Berlin museums to install posters reading “Down with the Spanish champions.” Here, the soliciting of public attention follows the pattern set by the media guerilla, and observers may well have believed these were in fact young artists attempting to come to terms with the museumization of art. But the group storming the museum were actually paid actors hired by an agency to install advertisements for a soccer match between the club Hertha BSC Berlin, sponsored by Nike, and FC Barcelona – the Spanish (soccer) champion.

Bolzplatz, signage poster, Berlin 2005

The strategy of the fake

Nike has deployed the strategy of the fake at its most consequential in Australia. In the Berlin campaigns exploiting this strategy, target groups were always aware that they were dealing with advertising. Every young person who heard a Nikepark 2000 radio spot, intercut into another advertisement in the style of a pirate broadcast, knew he was listening to Nike's own promotion, but still found the spot ‘cool’ because it mimicked an illegal action by a media guerilla. With the radio spots for the Bolzplätze(A Bolzplatz is an informal soccer ground) campaign of 1999, which faked genuine contributions to the ‘Fuck You’ hotline on KISS FM, a Berlin radio station, the listener had to realize, at the latest upon hearing them repeated, that this was an ad campaign. The implementation of the strategy of faking takes on another dimension in campaigns that actually try to operate like communications guerillas. In Australia in summer of 2001, Nike launched a new soccer shoe, Nike Air Zoom. On posters that imitated the aesthetic of the protest movements, especially the Billboard Liberation Front, which is very active in Australia, the shoes were referred to as “The Most Offensive Boots we Ever Made.” These imitations were so skilfull that even within the anti-Nike scene, there was controversy about which elements came from Nike and which from its opponents. Yet Nike's faking strategy extended much further: The campaign organized a protest group, the FFF (Fans for Fairer Football), that protested against the technical superiority of the new Nike soccer shoes. The highpoint of the campaign was a series of demonstrations held in various Australian cities to protest the superiority of Nike sport shoes. Yet these demonstrators were not genuine: “They were not activists (...) these were ‘actorvists’.”Rebensdorf, Alicia, “USA: Nike Capitalize on the Anti-Capitalist,”, 2001. In the tradition of media-critical fakes, Nike destroys the symbolism of its political enemies by adapting their communicative means and subversively undermining these. In this case, Nike faked an entire anti-Nike campaign, including demonstrations and anti-Nike web pages.

The Sony brand launches the new PSP console, Berlin, 2005

An experimental city at the service of consumers

There are good reasons for supposing that Nike's marketing strategists have devoted serious study to the artistic and political protest movements of the previous century. Critically depressed, Debord wrote in 1988 that of the readership of his Society of the Spectacle, “half of them, or nearly that many, are people who are committed to maintaining the system of spectacular authority.”Debord, op. cit., p. 193. Marketing strategists deploy the instruments of the protesters, not as a means of critique, but instead in order to construct a brand image of resistance.

But comparisons between the Situationists and Nike marketing strategists can be extended even further: aren’t Nike's urban interventions, and not the situative brand city, actually the fulfillment of the Situationist dream of an experientially intensive city – albeit not as a social, Utopian project, but instead as a consumable simulacrum? “The great coming civilization will construct situations and adventures. A science of life is possible. The adventurer is the one who allows adven-tures to happen, not so much the one to whom they happen. (...) The share of those little accidents we call fate will be reduced. For this goal, an architecture, an urbanism and an influential form of plastic expression coincide, of which we possess the initial foundations.”Debord, Wolman et. al. (Internationale Lettristen) 1954, cited in Ohrt 1990, p. 79. Target group specific market research, trend research, brandscaping, scenar-izations of atmospheres: Are these not truly the “science of life”?

When Nike converts a subway tunnel into a pipe for skateboarders, when basketball and soccer are played in it, when for just a moment, the legality of the rational city is suspended, a détournement has taken place. And if it is staged not in a subway station, but instead under the Reichstag (which is, after all, the seat of legislative power), then Nike pinpoints ways of using the city that come undeniably close to those of the Situationists. But there remains an enormous and unbridgeable difference. While the Situationists were striving for freedom, for excess, then brand specific Corporate Situationism pursues a reliable, controllable, consumable image of freedom. Nike follows not the project of a libertarian way of life, but instead a marketing illusion.Ada Louise Huxtable, The Unreal America, New York, 1997, p. 90ff. The possibilities for exploration in a future Niketown are nothing more than a painstakingly constructed fake.

This article was published in Stream 01 in 2008.