What Does Nike Want?

Getting on brand and staying on top. What technology and corporate identity can teach art students.

Not too long ago writer and tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly2 told us that technology is the 7th Kingdom of life, evolutionarily speaking. As many theories come to be, Kelly arrived at this one by first locating an instrumental question: what does technology want?

Not meant to imply a human type of “answering,” this question served as an investigative tool that helped Kelly look at technology through an evolutionary lens in order to determine its “wants.” Such long-term analysis revealed that technology has tendencies toward the same evolutionary goals as living organisms, i.e., ubiquity, diversity, specialization, complexity, and socialization. Thus, insofar as technology shows similar tendencies and patterns as organisms, technology can be seen as the 7th Kingdom of life.

The key to any evolutionary methodology is “long-term,” that is, to take a span of time long enough that allows for a tracing of mutation, as well as a mapping of environmental fluctuations that activate such changes.

Manuel De Landa, whose philosophy addresses scientific and cultural concerns, grounds his thinking on dynamic systems theory in order to show that there are inherent structures to our reality. According to De Landa, our reality can be explained through emergent patterns and structures, that “everything from the static on a telephone line to the formation of mountains to the fluctuations of stock markets displays deep structural patterns and tendencies (attractors).”3 Thus, “it is these patterns that give rise to the myriad shapes and events of reality.”4 Emergences such as technology, which were previously thought of as “seemingly random forms and events in life,”5 follow these inherent patterns.

And so we arrive at the question that is important to us, what do brands want?

“Right now I’m developing my own brand. The brand is developing a brand. So my brand is a development of developing brands.” – Akeem Smith

Brands share the same evolutionary goals as organisms, that is, to succeed. Success means a standing-out in competition above other species (brand-species) in order to guarantee continuance over time. For brands, this is achieved through attraction, an intelligent sorting of sophisticated semiotic coding that responds to social, economic, and political environments in order to evoke human interest.

Today, brands are becoming evermore-complex organisms; each successful brand is a truly evolved animal, and as such has the same drive toward ubiquity, diversity, specialization, complexity, and socialization. One need only look at the history of a well-known brand such as Nike to see morphogenetic-like changes taking place. With time, and as long as Nike continues to garner attention above other brands, we will be able to trace more genealogical transformations in the appearance of their branding and logos.

To the extent that branding is a type of coding that adapts according to its social, political economic, as well as semiotic environments, advertising has evolved in parallel to the field of art. Except for one major difference: advertising has incorporated evolutionary psychology into the construction and interpretation of codes, whereas the field of art, for the most part, has not. As scientist and professor Robert Sapolsky explains, “meaning” is a circumstance of the deep interconnections between our physiology as well as our thoughts and memories and their capacity to influence each other.6 Advertising understands that attraction occurs in connection to environmental and semiotic climates as well as physiological human responses.

Misunderstood by the critical art sector as the total corporate instrumentalization of human physiological responses, the field of advertising continues to be disavowed from having any “critical” potential. Yet in a world where the language of advertising is becoming evermore sophisticated and ubiquitous, it seems almost pathological for art to continue to disregard its presence. Why should the emergent system of signs known as art escape the grasps of a more expansive material ontology?

Art students wanting to find their “thing” or artists who instinctively “brand” themselves, reveal the function of art that is overlooked – that art, like advertising, is attention-seeking. Artists, like brands, are (and have always been), in competition with each other. The role of the artists is one who seeks to “raise the benefit of his/her compositional effort through recombining existing solutions in new ways.”7 In other words, artists, have the same evolutionary drives as branding, that is, to navigate social, political, economic, semiotic as well as material environments, and in order to present the most successful coding that will evoke the highest attention, and thus, guarantee its endurance over time.

Analytic methods in the art field have for too long been concerned with solely conceptual tenets of signification and subjectification8 with disregard for the material connections to which art, as all other things in our world, belong. Professor Sapolsky argues, the task is not to take up one single methodology but to think of each method as a temporary platform that is simply the “most convenient way to describing the outcome of everything that came beforehand.” Similarly, to understand art today, we must take into account conceptual and semiotic histories as well as human physiology, millennia and evolution.

Artists such as Katja Novitskova, and Timur Si-Qin, and DIS, among many others, are already conceiving of art as attention-earning. No longer indebted to the plights of previous generations their work opens up potentials for a new art discourse based on these tenets. This is the new task for art criticism.

  1. I thank Katja Novitskova and Timur Si-Qin for their generous insights on the topics of this essay.
  2. Kevin Kelly on how technology evolves (Ted Talk November 2006).
  3. Timur Si-Qin, “Metamaterialism,” 2011.
  4. Timur Si-Qin.
  5. Timur Si-Qin.
  6. Lecture at Stanford by professor Robert Sapolsky on Human Behavioral Biology (March 29, 2010).
  7. Brian Boyd, On The Origin Of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Harvard Press, 2009
  8. Elizabeth Grosz. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth.

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