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Spectacle in the Service of Capital

May 13, 2011

Yesterday, MLive posted yet another article about the latest Rob Bliss “event.” Bliss and company will be filming a lip dub in downtown Grand Rapids to the Don McLean song “American Pie.”

While Bliss is hoping for another huge turnout he has also lined up numerous people who along with Bliss want people to come to downtown Grand Rapids and spend money. I have argued in previous postings about the Bliss phenomenon that while these events may be fun and engage lots of people, they ultimately serve capital interests.

Bliss only organizes these events in downtown Grand Rapids, which only benefits a small sector of the business community. Many of the businesses downtown are upscale and disproportionately benefit people who are already well off. Imagine if a zombie walk were to happen in the Burton Heights neighborhood or the Creston neighborhood or along the Grandville Avenue corridor. If people were buying food the money would surely land in the hands of small restaurants and grocery stores, many of which are owned by people of color.

However, the Bliss events are downtown and serve the businesses interests of some of the same people that Bliss has invited to be part of the lip dub. Among those involved who benefit from money being spent in downtown GR are Dick DeVos, Peter Seechia, Jim Dunlap (banker), Ryan Slusarzy (Amway Hotel), Jay Harnish (DeVos Hall) and Randy Finch (Ice Sculptures Ltd.).

On top of that there are numerous media personalities that also fit into this downtown spectacle in the service of capital model. You have 2 members of WOOD TV 8 (where Bliss works), a WXMI 17 reporter, an on air personality from WTNR, the entertainment website GRNow and a writer for Rapid Growth Media. All of these media entities promote this kind of activity (entertainment that makes money) disproportionately more than news and events that benefit working class people.

Rob Bliss has often been asked why he won’t do events for a cause and he says that he wants to remain apolitical and just promote fun in Grand Rapids. While it would be hard to question the fun that people have at Bliss events it is dishonest of him to say that his events are apolitical, especially when they serve the capital interests of so few.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Spaulding permalink
    May 14, 2011 12:54 am

    “On account of its all-pervasiveness, ideology appears as its own opposite, as non-ideology, as the core of our human identity underneath all the ideological labels.”
    -Slavoj Zizek, discussing how declarations of being apolitical are the greatest evidence of ideological driven action.

    How are events like these or Artprize not ultimately celebrations of the current politcal-economic order? The justifications are all in terms of business, and as you point out Jeff, the specific businesses that will benefit necessarily exclude everyone in the city’s periphery.

  2. Mark Rumsey permalink
    May 14, 2011 2:44 am

    Hmm… I must say, I have not been a fan of the Rob Bliss “events” in the past, nor this one, mostly for their lack of originality or contextual relevance to the Grand Rapids community. However, the level of conjecture that this piece has reached seems equally absurd. An event happening in the city’s core is just because of that, it is the core of the city, a central gathering point. Yes, events like these are created to stimulate business in Grand Rapids, they are not about creating culture. Yes, businesses benefit from events such as this including lots of locally owned and operated businesses that employ lots of local folks. Yes, local media personalities figure into the mix because they are our our appointed local celebrities. It would be nice to see a critique of the event that spoke of its general irrelevance instead if trying to frame it as some sort of sly conspiracy to get people to participate in a capitalist system, which we already do, no conspiracy needed.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 14, 2011 1:17 pm

    Mark, I disagree with you…simply because of the history of Rob Bliss’s projects. At the beginning, he was an independent, a performance artist, raising his own money to put on his events, and there wasn’t an additional motivation that I could see to his art.

    But the ka-ching factor was mentioned connected to his work early on, as in a Rapid Growth Grand Rapids piece about how delighted the Downtown Alliance was with the business and attention Bliss was generating to the city core. One quote in the article was “On the day of the pillow fight, Johnny’s Lunch, located adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle, opened four hours early to brisk business.”

    WOOD-TV hired him as an account executive. Rob now “partners” with the Downtown Business Alliance to plan events. In 2010 he won a PR award because “Rob personifies what it means to engage a citizenry by combining class public relations strategy with today’s newest communications tactics.”

    This doesn’t sound “apolitical,” as Rob claims to be. It doesn’t sound like art. This sounds like someone launching a “Let’s Go Downtown” advertising campaign…which, let’s face it, is what Rob is now paid to do.

    Various downtown businesses now fund his “events,” which are no longer described as performance art. In a GR Press article in 2010, he himself described his events as key to attracting and keeping young professionals to Grand Rapids. He said, “Yes, jobs will bring young people, but those are shallow roots that are easily blown away if a harsh economic wind comes. I see Grand Rapids as continuing to expand, and finally finding its primary market in the health care sector, a search that left us on uneven footing as a city for so many decades…”

    Spoken like an account executive with an agenda, and a well-funded one at that–not an artist. And I think that’s sad.

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    May 14, 2011 1:51 pm

    Mark, I think a more detailed analysis of the event is important, which would require attending it and I already have plans on Sunday. Also, I don’t think it is a sly conspiracy, this is just business as usual for people who are motivated by profit.

  5. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 14, 2011 4:53 pm

    Mark, I misspoke a bit in my response above. I saw that you DO agree that events like Rob Bliss’s are created to draw business to downtown. My response was not that I disagreed with that point, but rather that that didn’t used to be the objective of Rob’s work.

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

  6. jae permalink
    May 14, 2011 8:01 pm

    Has Rob Bliss identified himself as an artist as it relates to his downtown events? I know he’s a musician but I always just thought of him as an events planner, but I’m probably not as knowledgable as you on the matter.

    I think his events have always been just about attracting people downtown. His first event downtown (the pillow fight) was co-sponsored by the Downtown Alliance and the Zombie Walk was sponsored by The BOB and the Downtown Alliance. His goals and methods seem pretty consistent from start: I don’t think there was a point when his downtown events switched in intent or he became corrupted by the downtown capitalists.

  7. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 14, 2011 9:48 pm

    Jae, Rob Bliss’s 2009 paper airplane event was entered in ArtPrize as a performance art piece. A 2008 article from Rapid Growth Grand Rapids stated that his long-term goal was to make his living solely from peformance art. If you look at the coverage of early events he put on, you’ll see him referred to (and referring to himself) as an artist or performance artist.

    Contrast that to interviews he has given about his lip-sync event, which he calls “the creation of a huge, huge promotional video” for Grand Rapids. He has incorporated his company under the name “Rob Bliss Events,” and he is referred to in articles as a “community organizer” and “events promoter.”

    After he was hired by WOOD-TV and started working with Downtown Business Alliance, I feel like his whole attitude about being an artist was left in the dust. But at one point, it was his focal point, or seemed to be from what he said.

  8. Jae permalink
    May 15, 2011 1:02 pm

    Kate, I couldn’t reply below your comment for some reason.

    I still don’t think I follow Rob Bliss as close as you seem to, but with all do respect I think that you are mistaken in your view on the trajectory of Rob Bliss’ events and are making statements that just don’t seem to line-up with the facts.

    I tried to point out in my earlier comment that Rob Bliss’ very first event in downtown Grand Rapids – The Pillow Fight – was a partnership with the Downtown Alliance. His next event – The Zombie Walk – was too and that partnership has continued. He was working with the Downtown Alliance well before he was hired by WOOD TV 8. I found this information in an article on Rapid Growth Media called “Rob Bliss’ Urban Experiments” by Daniel Schoonmaker. In a 2009 profile for the Grand Rapids Press (“Profile: Grand Rapids urban experiment guru Rob Bliss), the Grand Rapids Press says that Bliss was steered to the Downtown Alliance by city special events coordinator Todd Tofferi. The same article also says that Bliss changed the name of his project to “Rob Bliss Events” in early/mid-2009, well before ArtPrize (Incidentally, “Rob Bliss Events” is a non-profit). There wasn’t a point at which businesses realized they could start making money off Bliss, co-opt him, or take away his status as an “artist”: he has been working with those people from the beginning. He also has been quite clear that his motivation is to have fun and get people into downtown.

    In the Rapid Growth Media article you cited above, Bliss does say he wants to make his living as a performance artist (a musician), but that is entirely separate from his events. In fact, I’d say that he is bemoaning the fact that he is known for the events, not his music. Sure, early on the media seemed to play up the notion that Rob Bliss is/was a college student with dreams of being a musician, but his events began to overshadow that. Going back to early interviews, there appears to be a tension wherein Bliss is doing these events with an interest of getting people downtown and is somewhat frustrated that it’s overshadowing his career as a musician.

    Maybe the thing to take away from all this is that Rob Bliss’ events were going to have an effect on downtown businesses from the start — as any event downtown would. Also, Bliss was never an “independent,” he worked with business interests from the start.

  9. May 16, 2011 11:37 am

    I think Jeff’s piece asks a valid question that can also be asked of ArtPrize. How many venues owned by people of color are included in the ArtPrize boundary?

  10. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 16, 2011 3:02 pm

    Perhaps my early view of Bliss’s work was idealized. However, I don’t automatically equate his composition and work in music with the term “performance artist,” as you do…and if he hadn’t chosen the term “performance art” to describe his paper airplane piece, it would not have been allowed to be an ArtPrize entry.

    Also, I think that the earliest comments I remember Rob saying about his “events” were that he wanted people to gather and have fun. Now he’s talking about promotion of downtown…and his shift in accepting donations from organizations to working for them also seems, to me, to alter his perception of what he’s doing and why.

  11. jae permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:56 pm

    This is the third time I have pointed it out, but there was not a “shift” from “accepting donations from organizations to working for them.” He worked with/for them from the very start! See the Rapid Growth we both cited above for proof.

    As for the “performance artist” bit, I know he had to use the term to enter ArtPrize. If I conflated “performance artist” and “musician,” it was only because you used the term and I couldn’t find any mention of it other than in relation to ArtPrize.

    The point for me is Bliss was never an “artist” and he wasn’t co-opted and/or corrupted by the capitalists in downtown. Nor is his agenda being driven by his employer (WOOD TV) or any other business entities. He made his choice from the start to create business friendly and “fun” events. His agenda has always been quite clear. He didn’t suddenly change or cozy up to business folks. If he got more sponsorships, it is because the events increased in scale. It’s been the same crap all along.

    And for the record, I hate Rob Bliss and I hate downtown. I’m not trying to defend him, I just think there is an error in your argument.

  12. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 19, 2011 12:34 am

    I admitted this once before, but you are right; I had somehow idealized Rob Bliss’s motives and “vision” a lot more than you, and you know more about this than I do.

    I finally found the Press profile I was looking for, where it clearly says that in 2008, Rob did receive funding from Downtown Business Alliance for his first work, which was the pillow fight. (He did not, however, receive all his funding from them. I remember a shorter article where his father said he literally went door to door to get enough money to put it on.)

    I did want to note a couple of things:

    I don’t consider the Rapid Growth Grand Rapids article a really good source of information. They are shills for local corporations and business interests in the area. Any writer for them would give an article a “this is drawing business here” slant, regardless of whether it was or not.

    In that article, however, Rob talks about how he wants people to have fun at his events. He doesn’t seem to be saying much about that any more. The lip-sync event he described, as a mentioned, as a gigantic “promotion” for Grand Rapids and the downtown area. He didn’t used to talk like that.

    After reading that earlier profile of him, I feel the jury is out on whether he ever saw himself as an artist or not. I think you may be right when you say, not.

    However, he did say early on that he created his events because they were things that he himself wanted to go to, and nobody else was creating them. I think I heard that in the same way that writers say, “I wrote this story [poem, novel, play] because it was something I really wanted to read, and nobody had written it yet.”

    And again, perhaps I’m reading too much into that.

    Sorry if you found the discussion with me frustrating.

  13. karen henry permalink
    May 28, 2011 11:41 am

    One more observation. I just watched American Pie and was struck by how male-centered it is…..


  1. Rob Bliss’s Lip Dub Sparks Some Questions « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. Grand Rapids » Blog Archive » Rob Bliss's Lip Dub Sparks Some Questions « Grand Rapids Institute …
  3. Grand Rapids receives praise once again for being a hotbed for budding capitalists | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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