February 2007


Corporatising culture

By Malcolm Knox
Corporatising culture
Who holds the past in common trust?

I am sitting in a car. A taut-voiced woman is leaning into the window, telling me what not to touch.

She points to a battery of buttons flashing across the dashboard.

"Don't touch."

She points to the handbrake, gearstick and pedals.

"Don't touch."

She points to the passenger seat.

"Don't touch."

It is as I set off at 15 kilometres an hour, climb a narrow ramp and approach a sharp left-hand turn that I cannot remember whether she told me not to touch the steering wheel. Will the woman run up to me in my crashed vehicle and say, I never told you not to touch the steering wheel! What kind of idiot are you?

I close my eyes, fold my hands on my lap and place my faith in technology. The steering wheel turns itself. I'm away, up hill and down dale, on a lengthy circuit past a ferris wheel, a test-driving track, an educational display, a photography exhibition, a modelled Formula-1 pit stop, an Imax theatre and a rank of race-car simulators. I am tickled pink every time the ghost in the machine turns my steering wheel. Soothing elevator music fills the cabin.

Where exactly am I? It's not easy to answer. This is a place called Toyota Megaweb, situated on Odaiba, an island reclaimed from Tokyo Bay in the heady bubble days of 1988. Odaiba means "cannon emplacements", as this was the fort from which Japan intended to defend itself against Admiral Perry 150 years ago. But the past has closed around us from behind. Odaiba is a futuristic mini-city, and it has the white elephant's obligatory assemblage of monorail, artificial beach and ambitious, forward-looking architecture. Unlike anywhere else in Tokyo, Odaiba has an abundance of empty lots.

The Toyota Megaweb, which I circle in my radio-sensor-controlled "E-com ride car", is a place of paralysing ambiguity. It is certainly a tourist sight: the place is as shutterbug-packed as the temples of Kyoto. As well as the E-com ride, it has the Imax, with seats that convulse in violent Parkinsonian shudders, the simulators, the F1 display and, outside, the ferris wheel. Is it a theme park? There are giant video screens, cafés and a racetrack for children to pedal electric vehicles, but it might also be a science-and-technology museum: the Megaweb contains an interactive educational display on hybrid vehicles and a "Universal Design Showcase" of household items (slogan: "Universal Design: made to make you happy!"). A wall is implanted with every Toyota gearstick and dashboard ever made, each with an explanation of why its design seemed a good idea at the time. And, lest we think this is just about cars, the Universal Design Showcase has furniture, pens, crockery and a model city. Perhaps the Megaweb is a museum after all. It does have a "History Garage" of vintage cars. Incongruously - though I'm not sure if there is any congruity left to mess with - there is also an exhibition of photographs and drawings about John Lennon.

But let's cut to the chase. The hybrid vehicles are for sale. The test-driving track is for prospective Toyota buyers. The Imax and simulators feature great moments in Toyota-racing history. The History Garage is filled only with Toyotas. I can't quite work out the John Lennon connection, as I thought he was a Rolls fan. But at the centre of the Megaweb beats a very familiar and functional heart: this is a car showroom. Many of the Japanese tourists are ordinary people buying cars. All the free entertainment - everything that has brought me here - is garnish. I am sightseeing in a car yard.

Across town, in the established shopping precinct of Ginza, is the Sony Building. Like the Megaweb, the Sony Building is featured in all of my tourist guidebooks, and it is also filled with tourists who are consumers and consumers who are tourists. The space-age interior is modelled conceptually on the New York Guggenheim, a single path spiralling through the exhibits. As at the Toyota Megaweb, there are interactive displays: you can make a film of a toy town; you can play games on next year's computers. The information desk is unmanned, instead advertising Sony technology by asking you to manipulate a touch-sensitive electronic card and view your hand on a TV monitor.

It strikes me that all high-tech consumer shops could be interactive science museums or computer-game arcades if they wanted to, but Sony has brought this ambiguity front-and-centre. When I sit down before the latest Bravia flat-screen television, which transforms the water of Japanese TV into the wine of compelling viewing, what have I become? Am I a tourist checking out the newest Japanese miracle, or am I a convert to a brand? No salesperson approaches to gauge my interest. They are happy for me to remain uncertain as to what, precisely, I am.

Things get weird when I climb to the twenty-fifth floor of the Shinjuku L Building, across the road from the Park Hyatt, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson loved each other unrequitedly in Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation. Here at the Toto Super Space, I am taking a tour of a toilet showroom. Again, "Universal Design" is the proud boast, "applied to all plumbing environments". Toilet-roll holders enable "one-hand, one-touch" usage. Toilets have backrests and remote-control adjustable seat heights. Taps are automatic (in Japan, I don't think I ever turn a tap handle). And, of course, there is the famous Washlet, a Toto trademark that caused a "WC revolution" in 1980 (advertising jingle: "Our bottoms want washing as well"). The Washlet is the toilet that makes a watery sound when you sit on the seat, for ladies' modesty, and doubles as a bidet. There is not much to buy here, apart from toilets, taps and bathtubs, but I can get a souvenir ashtray shaped as a toilet bowl, complete with cistern. I take a very informative free booklet about the historical evolution of Toto's ecological virtues, customer-friendliness and usefulness to society at large, and enjoy the view from 25 storeys.

In Japan, there is every blend and recombination of what is cultural and what is corporate. The Tokyo beer museum is owned by the beer company. The tobacco museum is owned by the tobacco company. There is the corporate showroom as curio (Toto Super Space), and the corporate showroom as funhouse (Toyota Megaweb, Sony Building). There is the company headquarters self-advertising as a theme park (the NHK television and Ghibli animation studios). There are shops which blur their identity with historical exhibits (the Pentax shop has old cameras in glass cases, and the Leica shop has a photo gallery, old cameras and even, in its repairs section, a case of cameras destroyed in disaster or war - irreparable!). The Pen Pilot showroom, Pen Station, displays the evolution of fountain pens through the years. Art galleries are either name-branded (the Bridgestone Gallery is one of Japan's foremost) or they form a floor of existing shops (the cosmetics house Shiseido has one floor dedicated to art exhibitions). The media conglomerate Axis has set up a corporate/cultural centre in which it is impossible to distinguish the exhibit from the retail. In Shibuya, an Audi building is being fitted out, promising customers a place "to come in and experience our brand". Not buy a car, but experience the brand.

Sometimes it is the building itself that makes it into the Lonely Planet or the Frommer's. Prada, Comme des Garçons and Louis Vuitton, among many others, have commissioned structures which attract architecture students; tourists flock to the bubbled, diamond-panelled Prada building in Aoyama. As advertising, it is cost-free.

But what does it all mean, and why is this intermarriage of the corporate and the cultural so arresting? I find myself pressed by the same question that has been pressing for the half-century of the Japanese economic miracle. Am I seeing a harbinger of the next century or a new permutation of the past one? Which of this will travel: which is just weird Japanese stuff, and which of it is our future? And why does it all make me so uneasy?

When I was young, no school trip or holiday with friends through the Hunter region, north of Sydney, was complete without a visit to the Oak Factory. Oak milk was then a regional phenomenon: you didn't get it a hundred miles south. Being regional, it was exotic. At the factory, we took the tour. Not quite Willie Wonka, but pretty good: a factory that turned the disgusting stuff that squirted out of cows into cold chocolate milk. After the tour, when we were taken into the Oak shop, we discovered that Oak milk tasted fresher, better, sweeter than ordinary milk. No milkshake could ever match (nor has it ever matched) those bought at the Oak Factory milk bar. Now that the Oak Factory is a wing of Dairy Farmers and Hungry Jack's, Oak milk is everywhere and it doesn't taste like anything.

All this is to say that the commingling of factory, shopfront and advertising is neither new nor oddly Japanese. What are our beautiful wineries but Oak Factories for grown-ups? The invasions and deceptions of advertising were much more blatant in the industry's early years - the medicinal qualities of Coca-Cola, or the way Don Bradman turned himself into a human billboard for his endorsements - than they are now. Like fast-adapting bacteria, corporations are sneakier and more potent. The sandwich-board guy has turned himself into the guy paid to drive a Nando's Chicken car around town. Advertising has colonised names - remember Garry Hocking, the Geelong footballer rechristened, for a handsome commission, Whiskas? - and the 3 corporation can patent a number. Even time itself can be sold off to an advertiser. In an eerie life-imitating-art moment, an American football team started its first match this season at 7.11 pm, the publicity an ample payoff for the cheque written by its sponsor, 7-Eleven. It made me think of David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest, set in, respectively, The Year of Glad, The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, The Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and The Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar. A decade ago, Wallace thought he was joking.

Australian corporations have for years been colonising tourism and leisure spaces, from AMP's purchase of naming rights over the highest observation tower in Sydney to Telstra's brand-takeover of the Olympic Stadium, nee Stadium Australia. Art galleries, opera companies and museums are used to singing for their supper. The money for blockbuster exhibitions has to come from somewhere, and for every quid there is the pro quo of naming-rights sponsorship. Culture morphs into retail: the museum shop is now a necessary little earner, and it's not simply for museum and gallery visitors but for locals wanting to drop in for a funky or arty gift.

So much for the shop attached to the museum. What of the museum attached to the shop?

Our companies have tended to be more modest than Japan's. They keep their art collections securely in the boardroom, for the edification of staff and important clients. No Australian corporation worth its salt doesn't produce a handsome coffee-table book on the company's history, but these are produced to enhance the company's prestige among insiders and clients. Seldom are these vanity items projected to the public, and seldom does the public show any interest. If Channel Nine turned its studio into an interactive theme park, like Tokyo's NHK network, would anyone come?

Although Australian companies will try to get their names on sporting gear, zoos and theatres, the sponsor is still understood as parasitical on the cultural exhibit. It's not like Japan, where a Toshiba rugby team, playing in the top division, was traditionally made up of Toshiba employees. (Or it hasn't been like that, in Australia, since our cricketers earned enough not to have to work as salesmen for Benson & Hedges when they weren't on the field.) If we were like Japan, all those Friday-lunchtime office soccer teams would be the A-League.

The seamless knit of corporation and culture plays up to our preconceived ideas of the Japanese as a nation of salarymen, company drones. Lost In Translation could scarcely squeeze in character and story amid the product placement. I don't know if Suntory paid the real Bill Murray to go to Tokyo and advertise its whiskey, but the fictional beverage company which paid Murray's fictional character is actually a real company that sells real whiskey. Coppola has said that this is just the point: it's impossible to depict Japan realistically without stuffing it with product names.

Let's follow our intuition, then, that in Japan, culture and corporation, leisure time and sponsored time, privacy and advertising, have undergone a complete merger. Let's also assume that this is not a Japanese invention but rather a typical example of the Japanese way of sampling, absorbing and naturalising what it has learnt from the West. (This explanation, by the way, carries a particular conviction for me: I am in Japan for a symposium on jury systems; Japan is adopting a jury system for its criminal courts in 2009; my attendance stems from the thorough-going Japanese effort to study and cherry-pick the best features from every other jury system around the globe.)

Let's also say, out of an instinct for the way our society is headed, that the merger of corporate and cultural is so profitable and productive that it cannot help but spread around the world. And let's ask, Is there anything wrong with that? Are our feelings of unease going to be outmoded, slipping into Australia's memory like communism and religious sectarianism?

My reflex is to say, with the automatism of anyone born before 1970, that of course it matters. The Not-For-Sale sign on our culture, our families, our personalities, our time, must stay up. But the argument needs constant restatement and rethinking. Does it really matter if the National Gallery becomes the Telstra Gallery or if BHP's collection becomes Melbourne's most-visited Australian-art gallery? Does it really matter if my infant children can't say "3" on its own, but instead say "3 mobile"?

I feel vigorously that it does matter, yet I also feel myself resembling Chip in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, who teaches college students how to critique their popular culture but is floored by the student who retorts, "Nobody can ever quite say what's wrong exactly. But they all know it's evil. They all know ‘corporate' is a dirty word. And if somebody's having fun or getting rich - disgusting!" This precipitates a crisis in the liberal-arts teacher:

Criticising a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn't a sickness at all - if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed ... then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa's word, bullshit.

The ‘evil' in corporate mergers with cultural spaces, therefore, has to be re-argued continually to an audience who suspects, like the gen-Y Melissa, that "what's so radically wrong with society that we need a radical critique, nobody can say."

After I return from Japan, the air is thick with talk about ‘Australian values'. Everybody wants to talk about what they are, but nobody argues that values, whether national or familial or personal, are less nouns than verbs. Values aren't what we know, but how we do things. And our values are expressed in how we process what comes to us from the outside. It shows up in the discussion about how we treat asylum seekers and other immigrants, but it's also part of how we process those imports that don't need to apply for a visa.

To generalise, there are two ways an object can migrate across borders, and it's much the same whether we're talking about an idea, an art movement or a widget. One is because it's needed. The small, cheap, fuel-economic car was needed; the Pachinko machine was not. The microchip was needed; the Washlet was not.

The other way is when nobody sees any reason to resist the import. The question moves from ‘Why?' to ‘Why not?' This accounts for the bulk of our cultural imports. Nobody needed the Walkman or sushi, but once they were on offer, there seemed no good reason not to adopt them. This is how the meshing of corporate and cultural will happen, is happening. Some bright spark will visit the Toyota Megaweb, a light bulb will flash, and next year we will have dodgem-car rides, Daytona simulators and an electric-car exhibit at the most profitable car showroom in Perth. We will ask ‘Why not?' and come up with no answer that doesn't make us sound like a stick-in-the-mud. It's an Australian value to welcome ideas when they pay their way, when they sound like fun, when they do no harm. We've never closed our borders to the economically productive person, product or idea. We've never stood on our dignity, culturally, which is why we have been such a fertile market for consumables.

Just how ripe we are strikes me a week after I come back to Australia. I go away for the quintessential summer holiday: two weeks in a sleepy, one-shop coastal village. The shopkeeper is building a new tiled patio in front of the fish-and-chips counter. One day, I walk past and he's standing there, admiring the tiles. I say, "You can't let anyone walk on that. Just admire it." He says, "That's right - just like the ad!" Then I remember that his stance did indeed remind me of a TV ad. I thought I was being witty, but instead I was parroting an advertiser's witticism. The shopkeeper mentions another, similar, ad. We have a whole conversation about ads.

Many of us are always having conversations about advertisements, whether we know it or not. Ads link us by way of shared jokes, lessons, myths, ways of seeing, much as our ancestors were linked by their holy books or folklore. Advertising has taken over from religion in providing that invisible web inside ordinary conversations. So does it matter if our culture - an outcrop of our conversations and our thoughts - sells itself to the advertiser?

The other thing happening in this seaside village is that everyone is up in arms against a new development. The council has agreed to sell off public land to a real-estate developer, and the locals' reaction is to put up posters accusing councillors of taking bribes and "destroying the way we live". Not just a few hectares, but an entire way of life is deemed to be at stake. Everywhere on our coast, from Sydney Harbour to Broome, we have huge tracts of land that belong to and are used by the public. It seems particularly Australian to hang onto so much prime land for the public good. Although we're a soft touch when it comes to the privatisation of our minds, we are deeply hostile to the privatisation of what we can see and touch: our land. We are a materialistic people. We worship the material world. You can buy up our art, but you leave our beaches alone. So where does our history fit, on this spectrum between the two-dollar-shop of ideas and the Fort Knox of bushland and beach? How tightly held is our history? Do we care enough about it not to sell it to the highest bidder?

It's here - in the ownership of history - that I find why I'm so uneasy about the corporate showroom as cultural exhibit.

In Ginza, Shiseido has two buildings. The Shiseido Gallery is housed in the flagship store, glossily red in the colour of the brand. Among the perfumes is one floor devoted to rotating exhibitions of the visual arts. The exhibitions have nothing to do with Shiseido, but provide a pleasant accompaniment to shopping. The other building, a few blocks away, is the House of Shiseido corporate headquarters, built in 2004. Inside the headquarters is a museum dedicated to Shiseido history. It's open to the public and is well patronised - as are the Shiseido Corporate Museum and Shiseido Art House, entirely separate edifices situated outside Tokyo. This is one proud company. Its "Corporate Culture Department" was set up in 1990 with this charter: "valuable managerial resources that reflect the intellectual and spiritual outcomes of our corporate activities".

The corporate headquarters' museum, foremost among these intellectual and spiritual outcomes, is both beautiful and informative, with interactive displays and a temporary exhibition, Women in the Ginza, about professional women working in the area in the past century and a half. I learn that Shiseido was founded in 1872 as a pharmaceutical retailer, turning to cosmetics in 1897. The historical display includes other scenes from Japanese history, such as the country's first beauty contest, held in 1892. So comprehensive is the museum's embrace of Japanese history - Shiseido, it implies, is Japan - that I'm curious as to what it says about World War II. I can find three references:

1942: "The enforcement of container standards makes production of cosmetics difficult."

1943: "Beauty department closed."

1943: "Tokyo factory bombed. Young women wear more subdued hairdo."

That is the sum total of the war, through Shiseido's eyes. No Pearl Harbor, no Nanking, no Coral Sea, no Hiroshima. And in recalling this, later, when I'm back in Australia tossed between the sell-off of our minds and the territoriality over our beachside bushland, the penny drops for me.

Of course it's not a company's responsibility to tell the full story. The company only owes responsibilities to itself, its shareholders and its customers. It owes nothing to the national past; if you want to find out about Japan's history, you will have to go elsewhere. But when the private corporations own not only the means of production but also the cultural spaces themselves, where will there be to go? If culture is privatised, aren't we only going to hear the private owners' version? After all, they'll have paid for it. Who will hold the past in common trust? Who will protect our stories as jealously, and guard them as protectively for the common good, as our voters and ratepayers protect our public land? From Tokyo, I can't help but think that the greatest threat to our understanding of the past won't come from leftist teachers in black armbands or Windschuttles in rose-coloured glasses, but from a corporation who will remember the violence of early settlement as a time when land-clearing became more difficult, sales of firearms rose and young women wore more subdued hairdos.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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