Anyone for McArt?

"There was a concern that we didn't want to open ourselves to some sort of liability and to McDonald's lawyers," says Kirsten White, a Toronto-based designer with a piece in the show (with Marc Sullivan) called Reward Badges (2003), where burger-biters in the future will get Girl Guide-like badges for things like nutrition awareness.

The Toronto Star
October 16, 2003

Anyone for McArt?
Burger chain the butt of local creativity. Most artists rethink fast food addiction.
Peter Goddard

In Inserts, a fabulously flawed 1975 John Byrum film, a young porno director (Richard Dreyfuss) churning out skin flicks in the early 1930s is about to be kicked out of the old Hollywood mansion he's converted into a studio by an eastern Mr. Big.

The house is in the way of progress, he tells Dreyfuss. A new kind of highway, a superhighway, is about to come right through the lot, although Mr. Big doesn't care about that either. That's not the progress he's talking about. What matters, says Mr. B, is that these superhighways will be filled with hungry motorists, and they'll need a place for a quick bite. That's the future, says Mr. B, or his name isn't Big Mac.

Fantasies about McDonald's have always been one heck of a lot more fun than the McDonald's experience itself, and a lot easier on the calories.

This goes back to '60s folk singer Biff Rose, who once threatened to order a million Big Macs at one time just to see the digit change on the sign outside listing the numbers of burgers sold. (Ah, the '60s, when McDonald's sales were still in the millions, not the billions like today.)

And it continues at the Design Exchange with "The McDonald's Project" and its forward-thinking exhibition about global burgerization organized by Release 1, a Canadian-led design collective based in Boston.

Ironically, "The McDonald's Project" — surely the cheekiest show in town right now — runs parallel with McDonald's own effort at culture jamming with its "I'm Lovin' It" TV spot created by the company's German agency, Heye & Partner in Munich, and featuring Justin Timberlake in his best hip-hop groove.

Self-referential ads are hot right now, even with the iconic likes of Volkswagen taking a shot at its stiff, safe-thinking corporate self. McDonald's got in the game about a month back with a newspaper "announcement" that Ronald McDonald had been kicked up the corporate stairs to become "chief happiness officer."

In "I'm Lovin' It," McDonald's has put the 18 to 24 age group in its sights with a flashy, rock video-style spot that flickers by like a home movie run amok.

An old guy with weird shorts gyrates suggestively, a guitarist blows out an amp and there are flames and sparks everywhere and nary a fry in sight. And this is the point, of course: McDonald's is beyond burgers. It's a worldwide youth experience.

Precisely what's wrong with "I'm Lovin' It" is precisely what's right about "The McDonald's Project," a vision far closer to the thinking of the very age group the company is after, a demographic far more concerned about how to make the world healthier and saner, not lumpier and crazier.

Release 1 insists "The McDonald's Project" is "not a culture jamming effort" although a distinct anti-McDonald's attitude turned up initially with many of the early submissions to the project.

"There was a concern that we didn't want to open ourselves to some sort of liability and to McDonald's lawyers," says Kirsten White, a Toronto-based designer with a piece in the show (with Marc Sullivan) called Reward Badges (2003), where burger-biters in the future will get Girl Guide-like badges for things like nutrition awareness.

As a result, "The McDonald's Project" is less about McDonald's and more about the future of fast food worldwide.

"Some of the pieces do have a bit of McDonald's reflected in them," says White.

"But everyone has an idea about McDonald's that goes beyond McDonald's. If you want to compare (the fast food industry) to the church, it's time it has to update itself. At one time they were on the leading edge. But now we're thinking about what's missing.

"People of my generation (she's 33) were corrupted a long time ago. But now we're learning to make better choices. We're worried that other countries think (fast food) is what they want. It's like smoking, which is on the rise in the Third World."

Anyone expecting a total McDonald's smackdown will be terribly disappointed. In fact, one of the very first installations you come across in the show — if you're heading left into the show, probably an un-McDonald's way to go — is Garth Roberts's Bib Of Liability (2003), a bib and thick gloves burger buyers must wear to enter the restaurant. If patrons remove any portion of the protective garments, they must "accept responsibility if they happen to burn themselves."

In fact, "The McDonald's Project" is filled with ideas to quickstart the career of a budding young burger executive up the McDonald's corporate ladder.

Corey Costantino's Napkin Bags (2003) reflects the kind of innovative cheapo corporate think McDonald's has to love, by converting the burger-toting bag into the napkin needed at the end of the meal. Release 1 guru, Stefane Barbeau's Voting Fry Box (2003) with Duane Smith, puts your ballot next to your burger, an idea reflecting the deep penetration fast food has in our lives.

And maybe one of McDonald's more progressive young executives might go for the idea behind Neighbourhoods (2003), by Richard Hanks and Eric M. Johnson, where condoms are handed out free with your sandwich — they're tax deductible, you see.

Personally, I want to start collecting Wai-Loong Lim's Collective Cattle Trading Cards (2003), where the one-per-card cartoon images of "Aggro Ed" cow — she's got a black eye — or "BusyBody Bess" are certain, as the designer suggests, to "spark discussion about the history of the meat."

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