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Labatt six-pack silos a small sign of things to come

Colin Dabkowski

The only shocking thing about the Buffalo grain elevator currently masquerading as a Labatt Blue six-pack in the emerging RiverWorks entertainment complex is that it didn’t happen sooner.

From atop the Skyway, the blue tall-boys stick out like six shiny missiles ready to blast off from a desolate and otherwise monochromatic moonscape. The contrast between the blue silos and the surrounding industrial wasteland is jarring and instantly satisfying, a jolt of Yves Klein against a rusty, dusty landscape.

Is it art? Not even remotely. But the question is beside the point.

News about the silos’ transformation into a temporary ad for Labatt at the behest of its owner was met with the resounding support and excitement of people from across Western New York and far beyond, most of whom viewed the advertising stunt as a whimsical reanimation of a structure that until very recently had been left to rot.

It also elicited the shrill and ultimately self-defeating cries of a group of well-intentioned locals and expats who oppose the redeployment of this or any grain elevator as a huge concrete billboard. Pointing to a pair of regulations whose application to the current case is by no means cut-and-dried, the group gathered about 200 signatures on a digital petition aimed at pressuring the city and RiverWorks to remove the ads.

“We unabashedly are looking for legal actions to fulfill aesthetic wishes,” the petition’s author, Allen Farmelo, a former Buffalonian living in New York City, wrote on the site, calling for a more “mature and sophisticated beacon” to draw attention and visitors to the area.

In many ways, the opponents of the six-pack silo are fighting a just war against the insidious creep of corporate advertising into nearly every aspect of our daily lives. But they’re very late to the front. And in this case, both because of the enormous cultural currency of the product being advertised and the wholly innocuous way it’s being done, they’ve chosen exactly the wrong battle and made caricatures of themselves in the process.

Much of the discussion around the six-pack silos has been over whether their new look qualifies as “art.” Thing is, most members of the public don’t give a drop of Blue Light about the difference between art and commerce, a sad fact attributable not only to the pervasive nature of corporate advertising but the failures of an insular art world to make art that actually interests people.

What’s more, the wild protestations and vitriolic Facebook exchanges on the subject in Buffalo cultural circles betray a certain naïveté about the march of commerce in 21st century urban America.

Young urban dwellers barely have time to declare their love for an object or trend before it appears on the shelves of Urban Outfitters or in some kind of viral marketing campaign. One day, we’re ironically embracing mom glasses or T-shirts featuring wolves howling at the moon and the next they’ve been mass-produced and sold back to us at an absurd markup we are only too happy to pay.

So it is with the grain elevators, which, until recently, hardly anyone outside of academia seemed to care about. As soon as the dawning of consciousness about grain elevators began in earnest in 2006 or so, it was only a matter of time before corporations got in on the action. This was inevitable and clear to anyone who’s been paying attention for at least a decade, so the reactionary outrage over the Labatt ad is baffling.

The elevators were built a century ago to reap profits for Buffalo’s titans of industry. Now, after a long dormancy and a cultural revival that is likely to be a fleeting place-holder for future profitable development, the city’s new gentry is redeploying them for the same purpose. So let’s not pretend to be shocked.

None of this is to say we should throw up our hands. But if we really care about precluding the use of the grand structures that line the Buffalo River for advertising, it would make sense to redirect some of the blind outrage over this relatively harmless incident into a long-range effort to ensure the community-focused reuse of the buildings in the future.

There are people for whom Buffalo culture is synonymous only with brand names: the Bills, the Sabres, Labatt, Mighty Taco, Tim Horton’s, Sahlen’s hot dogs, Weber’s mustard. We can all bemoan the fact that the populace doesn’t pay more attention to the hyperactive artistic, theatrical and architectural culture of the city, and we should.

But let’s try to do it in a way that’s proactive rather than reactive and which doesn’t reinforce the false idea of preservationists or champions of culture as insufferable blowhards with perfect hindsight, a withering disdain for the habits of the common man and zero forward-looking ambition.

Too often, local and national preservationists have unwittingly contributed to the public’s twisted image of them as reactionaries more interested in static buildings than active culture. I’d like to imagine an alternate universe in which the outrage unleashed on this project after it was completed could be funneled into a proactive, progressive and large-scale community effort to establish the remaining silos in the district as tools to serve a public purpose.

But I’m not holding my breath.


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