Arts: O branded new world

Signs is an exhibition which inists that everything we see is an invitation to consume.
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You enter the temple to advertising through a 50-metre long corridor, piped music caressing you on your journey. In the distance, a mural of the Virgin Mary looms up: the mother of all brand names, with surely the world's best-known lifestyle product to sell. The man behind Signs, an exhibition on show in east London's Brick Lane, seems to think that today's global brand names are giving the Virgin Mary a run for her money, and says he is fascinated by the idea of "branding as religion".

"Are you going to go to the local Nike temple or the local gospel church?" asks Shubhankar Ray, art director of urban fashion-wear company CAT. It's a rhetorical question. For many young people today, he argues, there is no choice: "Everything is commodified [sic] and sold to people. Branding is their cultural landscape."

Signs is bankrolled by CAT, whose favourite slogan, "We Shape The Things We Build, Thereafter They Shape Us", appears on its new website.

"In a society/marketplace based on meaningless things," reads the exhibition sell, "people long for something interesting or attractive, so Signs is a project resulting from a culture where image is visual wallpaper. The Signs project takes apart mass-produced culture and reassembles it as pop culture."

The exhibition uses photography, film, video, music, new media and design as "a means to create a statement that represents a contemporary anthropology of urban culture", according to the organisers. The main theme linking all the contributors to the show is that of the automation of our cities, using semiotics in an attempt to capture the reality of urban life.

Emerging from the tunnel, ease yourself into the exhibition with the Bless the Artist display: an anti-technology, deliberately retro exhibit which comprises four TV-sized screens and is perfect for anyone who's a Luddite at heart. Toy cars trundle along the comforting, play-school landscapes made up of simple block images and solid primary colours, alongside messages which read: "You are in the deep end", "When red light shows wait here", and "Turn up the volume".

"They're like little illuminated signs," explains the brain behind Bless the Artist, Anthony Burril, who was also responsible for the Tango-sponsored Christmas lights in London's Regent Street at the end of last year.

"The simple look is taken from Ceefax and from cashpoint display machines, which have very low resolution. It is about using things that people are familiar with, and so becomes more user-friendly and less scary."

Signs is housed, appropriately, in a huge, industrial, urban warehouse space. Alongside the central corridor which channels all visitors into the exhibition, sit four large, silver pods, described as "listening booths". Dip in and out of these, throw yourself on to the desirable, designer beanbags and experience the rantings of culture terrorists CRASH, whose most famous slogans are "Death to Chris Evans" and "David Baddiel is the Rent Boy of the Bourgeoisie", and who here claim "Juvenile delinquents are the British avant-garde".

Short films on offer include work by the Visualisolationists, centred on the pop group Addict, and 16 mini-films (ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes) from graphic design company Fuel, throwing together juxtaposed ideas, from Patrick Moore explaining the Heisenberg theory of change to Kate Moss discussing ownership and the image.

In the adjacent pod, designed by Antirom, an agency and art collective which specialises in multimedia, websites and CD-Roms, visitors can get interactive with a small, square box projected on to a video screen. With the help of a computer mouse, the square can be provoked into a frantic display of furious activity. Nick Roop, a member of Antirom, explains: "As you interact with this thing that looks like a harmless little box, you realise it has a personality. It gets happier, or more pissed off, according to what happens. It is simple, but it is also a little bit dark." Contemporary photography is also well represented, from Dan Holdsworth's eerily beautiful urban landscapes of empty car-parks and deserted freeways, to the arresting Chopped Liver project, which freezes gym fanatics mid- workout, exposing their vulnerabilities and decrying the absurdity of gym culture. Accompanying text in this month's issue of the magazine sleazenation reveals the contempt felt by photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for their subjects: "Is it those self-same tossers who drive their Beemers the five-minute walk to the station every day who spend at least an hour a day working out? More than likely."

Signs has gathered together an impressive collection of those at the leading edge of artistic and commercial creativity. And while direct plugs for CAT are kept to a minimum, this is still clearly a case of credibility by association: what do you do if you want to appear street? Gather together the young, trendy innovators of today and hang out with them.

Signs, at the Atlantis Gallery, 146 Brick Lane, London E1 (0171-887 4852), until 21 Feb

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