When Marshall McLuhan called advertising the 20th century’s greatest art form, Ad Book probably isn’t what he had in mind.
The e-book, compiled by the Brooklyn-based art collective BFFA3AE, contains nothing but advertisements, though throughout the book’s 231 pages the very concept of “advertising” is stretched nearly to the breaking point. The collection includes contributions from galleries, a few websites, and other groups, though most come from individual artists, ostensibly advertising themselves. In some cases, the ads reference shows or websites or Twitter handles; in others, they’re quite simply about getting a name out there. Some of the contributions don’t really bother to promote anything at all.
Unsurprisingly, the ads themselves are about as far from glossy Condé Nast fare as you can get. Where those ads are designed to go down smooth, with every potential snag airbrushed out of existence, here the opposite aesthetic prevails. Garish colors and bizarre graphics assault you at every turn. A good number of the ads borrow from the visual palette of the early web, as is currently fashionable, including some that are animated (it’s an e-book after all), lurching from frame to frame. On the whole, it’s a messy thing.
Which isn’t to say it’s ineffective as a collection of advertisements. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Every few pages here has something that stops you in your tracks–a quality any good ad aspires to. Though here, a good deal of time, even when you do stop, it can be tough to figure out what or who, exactly, the thing you’re looking at is promoting.
But that’s fine. As much as Ad Book is a collection of advertisements, it’s also just a document–a fascinating visual chronicle of what a specific network of artists were interested in at a certain point in time. The creators have suggested that it might be the first in a series of these time capsules; as one explained in an interview with Rhizome, “I would actually compare it to Disney’s Fantasia, which was originally intended to be re-released each year with some new segments mixed with some of the segments from the version before. Had they gone with this plan, it would have been a showcase for the evolution of the medium and different creators at that given time, contrasted with what and who came before.”
In conjunction with the e-book’s release, the works were featured in an exhibition at the Gloria Maria Gallery in Milan, where ads were displayed in rotation on wall-mounted flat screens. In essence, an ad for the ads themselves. Clever.