Nike Loses Ground from Hackney to Vienna

Issue section: 

It's unusual for Hackney's New Labour council to come over all anti-capitalist. But wonders never cease. The council has threatened Nike with legal action after the sportswear giant produced a range of kit and equipment bearing an exact replica of the council's logo, without seeking permission.

It is demanding financial compensation to spend on sports development in the borough. The Hackney council logo, a round "H" surrounded by the words "The London Borough of Hackney", which appears on public buildings, council vans, staff uniforms and street signs across Hackney, has been used by Nike on T-shirts, vests, trainers and footballs designed to promote Nike's grassroots football campaign for the World Cup. As well as demanding money, the council has said that it wants assurances from Nike that all this kit has been ethically produced.

Like the recent HSBC bank adverts that play on the localness of a large global multinational to sell their wares, Nike hijacks the logo of local democracy. So the very "localness" swept away by capitalism is used as an icon to differentiate bland, samey multinational products to the consumer by romanticising the "grassroots".

But Nike doesn't always get its own way. Eva and Franco Mattes, two contemporary artists who work collectively as recently beat them at their own game with a fake Nike campaign.

Picture this. A 13 ton hi-tech container right in the middle of Karlsplatz, one of Vienna's historic squares. It's the Nike Infobox - a slick, demountable, walk-in container with two semi-transparent floors, dynamic shapes and a red plastic cover. On the outer windows a curious sign attracts the attention of passersby: "This square will soon be called Nikeplatz. Come inside to find out more." The plan to change the square's name has also been advertised on the website, while thousands of brochures were distributed all over the city.

Inside the Infobox a charming couple of Nike-dressed twins welcome curious citizens. They explain to the visitors the revolutionary Nike Ground campaign: "Nike is introducing its legendary brand into squares, streets, parks and boulevards - Nikesquare, Nikestreet, Piazzanike, Plazanike or Nikestrasse will appear in major world capitals over the coming years!"

A 3D project displayed in the Infobox gives information about a giant sculpture to be placed in the Karlsplatz or Nikeplatz from next year. It is a giant sculpture of Nike's famous logo, a "Swoosh", a 36 metre long by 18 metre high monument supposedly made from "special steel covered with a revolutionary red resin made from recycled sneaker soles".

Not surprisingly, many Viennese were puzzled and concerned at seeing a historic square sold by the city to a multinational without prior consultation. Immediately after the container was assembled and opened to the public, letters and e-mails began to jam the inboxes of local and national Austrian newspapers. An infoline was even set up, where a female voice would kindly accept all questions and criticism on Nike Ground activities.

Nike sued. "Where is the Nike spirit?" asks Franco Birkut, spokesman of "I expected to deal with sporting people, not a bunch of boring lawyers."

"Many artists have dealt with commercial products in the past - before Nike even existed," comment the Mattes. "Think of Andy Warhol's 'Campbell Soup', for example. Art has always used symbols of power from the society of its time as its subjects. Nike invades our lives with products and ads but then forbid us to use them creatively."

Nike's plea for a provisional injunction on formal grounds was refused, after which it threw in the towel. The sportswear company had yielded under the pressure of international public and media attention generated by the action.

Nike Ground's success was that it precisely pinpointed its place of attack and raised to the fore the whole question of the corporatisation and privatisation of public space. It did so by superbly parodying the marketing strategies used in the process.

As 0100101110101101.ORG say, "Art is exactly the location of the limits, they are never where you expect them to be. I think that in contemporary art, subjects which are usually considered 'provocatory' are, on the contrary, extremely conservative (ie naked bodies, genitals or corpses). Nike is exactly the opposite: banal, common, belonging to our everyday life, absolutely nothing extreme or 'off limits'."

And this is maybe something that Hackney council - despite its current burst of anti-capitalism - could learn from. Where Nike has jumped on the "let's make east London cool" bandwagon with its sportskit for the Olympic Games, Hackney council is continuing to be complicit with big capital in the further development of east London in the interests of the corporations and the rich.