Joachim Schmid

Words, Art and Property


XYZ—the thing needs a name. Naming, speaking, writing and reading makes the difference between an ant-hill and a society that calls a tree tree and a sticky substance of a certain shape Snickers. When the baby says »da-da«, the parents are happy; and now the only thing left to learn is what is done, what isn't and who owns what, and once the stutter has become a theory of relativity, the author receives the Nobel prize instead of mothers' milk. The prize is now all his and he can do with it what he pleases—only his ideas and their names belong to all of us now, and if we paid more attention earlier we may even understand some of it.

Specialists duty bound to culture try, in a well thought out system of scholastic education, to hammer into us not only a considerable amount of words and meanings but also their correct way of spelling. Nobody would think that somebody could claim a copyright on one of these words for himself (with the exception of a few vainly paranoid artists and philosophers); words can only function and survive as common property, similar to the multiplication table which isn't the property of Adam Riese either—otherwise every calculation would be chargeable and have to be marked with a big Riese-R in a small circle. Yet, the exclusive use of the zero remains a tempting thought—on which an economic system called capitalism is based.

The momentum of this system persistently brings forth (among other things) new words and concurrently ensures that words change their meaning. The German word tempo for example no longer only represents velocity, but also a magazine for the fast circulation of ideas and commodities and, as a product name for quickly useable hygiene-articles, it hegemonistically came to stand for the entire species of tissues. A similar thing happened to the arch-German word Kohl that not only refers to the genus of cruciferous plants (and, in vernacular German, "blooming nonsense") but also, since the word has come into circulation as the family name of an historically significant person, inevitably evokes his image—as well as everything else that the name stands for. Such an unfortunate name giving may be bearable for a politician, in other professions it would at least be a hindrance. When the experts in Hollywood got hold of the raw product Norma Jean Baker, they not only refined her appearance in the process of her functionalization (and thereby the structure of her personality, too), but a marketable name was also needed for success: Marilyn Monroe.

The marketability of a product is by no means only determined by its quality, an appropriate price and possibly even a demand, but also, you guessed it, its name: you cannot sell noodles under the name Noodle (not only because the multitude competing for our favor could become confused, but also because Birkel provides us with a different image than Barilla; even purely vegetarian products need a label, at least since they are produced by means of agro-chemicals and even more so since they are engineered genetically; in the case of Levis, Camel, Mercedes or Apple name and product are already one, and in the case of Madonna only the image is left. To invent names for products and engrave them with refined blatancy exactly into that spot of our brain that steers our reaching for the wallet, is one of the qualified activities interested circles cannot pay enough for to our creative people.

Surprisingly, and almost paradoxically, it appears at the first glance that these profitable words are being spread almost inflationary—that precious stuff pours down on us like a never ending warm shower of confetti. The second glance, however, reveals the entire perfidy, because all these nice new words have on the top right hand side behind the last letter, as a tiny beauty mark, an R in a little circle, pointing to the fact that the word has an owner for whom it has a high value of use, and therefore is to be enjoyed with care. In terms of intellectual property these words as registered trademarks belong only to those who brought them into usage, but only their continuous use by others creates their value: we may—seemingly gratis—use them as we please, because the more often we ask for a certain brand at the kiosk, the more their name increases its importance and share of the market, and even the silliest parody at least ensures circulation. The limit of legitimacy can be expressed in a few words: where money's concerned—hands off.

The Word Company now begins to interfere in this practiced system of circulation of names, goods and money. However, this newly founded company not only wants to play a part in the established routine but at the same time wants to change the rules, too. The sole proprietor Adib Fricke produces and sells new words with which the buyers can do as he pleases—within the margin of the general terms and conditions of business; they only have to acquire the rights of utilization on these words first. The registered owner then determines for himself if and how, when and where he uses his word. Carefully considered these neologisms on sale here are not even words because they still lack any meaning. To make these semi-finished products or protonyms, as Fricke calls them, work is the task and privilege of the constituent owner. As opposed to an agency that creates the appropriate name for a certain product and melts the one together with the other in a legally valid and marketable manner, The Word Company places the word autonomously at the beginning; it can, but does not have to, be related with a certain thing.

Such a procedure is—let's say—at least not established in the profession, and this can be explained by the fact that Fricke comes from a different profession. As an artist working with words he may use the same raw material as his merely commercially motivated colleagues, but his word creations evolve and work under the conditions and with the implications of a different context. Fricke tries to stretch and ironize this frame of contemporary art again and again, yet is still unable to escape it, and so it is as banal as it is obsolete to ask the question whether what he has initiated with The Word Company is compatible with our concepts of art, whether it extends it, breaks it or nullifies it, in other words whether it can be somehow related to the context we have learnt to call art. The only interesting thing to ask is whether it works or whether once again it is just art.

New words find their way into language mostly when an object, fact or idea is just beginning to mean something and is to be named. In most cases we owe these novelties to their obvious interest to those who are (or want to be) entitled to decision making. Regardless of whether an ideology is to be glossed over, a product be placed on the market or a new art to be pushed, the finding and spreading of a name occupies a central position in propaganda and advertisement (as in art criticism, too), and once the reputation has been established the people will surely believe or buy that shit. By means of their usage, these signifiers become part of the language, but since they are not developed out of it they will disappear with the things they signified. In contrast to word creations already commonly used (and so in the arts), The Word Company does by no means try to dress up a new program, but rather it becomes active in a vacuum of meaning. It creates words that sound »as if«, that activate our fantasy and let it wriggle, however, by producing a direct reference to the existing world of commodities, these words are different from phonetically convincing but functionally harmless Dada-noising and meffery.

Of course, even in the refuge of art the trade mark idea is not unknown: since Albrecht Dürer applied his AD like a hall mark on all self-mades, generations of artists have connected their names with their commodities; international cooperations such as Jeff Koons, Inc. or Mark Kostabi provide ample evidence for the success of this contemporarily refined strategy. Corporate identity is here called style, and the creators of an ism are as much responsible for the success of a campaign as the artists who create it and capitalize on it. Andy Warhol chose trade marks as his topic (and in turn made a trade mark out of himself), and whole troops of artists before and after him annexed—and signed—the fall out of industrial society. One thing, however, that the community of competing name-owners has up to now agreed: This is art! A thing marked with the signature of an artist requires special protection, and because it is such a very special product, not at all ordinary, it must be treated as such and above all must not come into contact with commercial intentions. The Word Company sells a dummy to those who fear the commercial "abuse" of art, bluntly encouraging its customers to commercial exploitation. While art as we know it is by now only produced to be collected by chocolate magnates, Fricke's creations can easily be transferred onto chocolate bars as logos—it only costs extra, just like in real life. For the benefit of a decent profit, we have to acknowledge that with their commercial usage words are inevitably involved into the circuit of evaluation and devaluation.

Such a trivial usage has to be regarded not as an eccentric exception but, ideally, as a rule; because actually Fricke's work is not concluded until the customers, thus becoming "contract workers" of the word producer, charge the words semantically and bring them into circulation. The fact that the onlooker and buyer constitutes meaning somehow applies to everything—we know that particularly in art important things happen in the dark corners of the brain and in the backrooms of business—, yet the customer is entitled to play a significant role here. After all it depends on the customers' potential of fantasy and energy whether The Word Company will become a successful enterprise. But the customers will certainly accept the challenge since they have already expressed their general agreement with this development by their decision to buy, from which they, as owners, hope to gain some profits for themselves. The owner of Avanz for example could shout his word heartily and cheerfully through the kitchen with every portion of home-made Fusilli al pesto that he serves to his friends; after a short while the sound of this sequence of letters would be connected with this meal at least for all those contemporaries who live within hearing and smelling distance; at the hip Italian instead of Spaghetti al pesto the people from now on would have to order Spaghetti Avanz, as loudly and clearly that all present would have to acknowledge; from that point Pasta Avanz would spread like a virus through the menus of the metropolis' relevant restaurants, the trend-journalist from a program of the Berlusconi-chain would now re-import this novelty in a snappy feature all the way from Little Italy to the homeland, and on the day after broadcasting negotiations could commence with Barilla on the industrial production and professional marketing of a completely new kind of noodle (I imagine a double twisted spiral that can absorb a decent load of pesto; a pasta-suited modification of the name such as Avanzetti could be considered and priced separately). Steffi Graf would not only wear this name permanently on her skirt's hem, from now on she would also have to accompany every service with a loudly pressed Avanz, and she would also have to appear in a televised commercial with the owner of the word. Avanz would become the hit of the year, adored not only among tennis fans and Opel-drivers, but would also become the meal of the eternal avant-garde that is compulsory in art circles; little portions of Avanzetti would have to be served at every vernissage, and gallery owners would most certainly have to pay fifty percent of their turnover to the inventor of the idea for this tribute to good form and taste. Avanzi!


Published in The Word Company, Volume I, Edition Fricke & Schmid, Berlin 1995
© 1994 Joachim Schmid and Adib Fricke, translation from German: Rachel Weine.