Presto, You’re Cool

Nike buys instant street cred in hip Kensington

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The garbage cans in kensington Market are talking. They’re saying things like: “Presto is less cool than my dad. Git out, you fakers!” and “Nike: sweatshops = get lost!” People have stuffed a mountain of garbage across the whole front of Presto’s building, and pools of paint have been thrown on its facade and sidewalk. Someone has chalked “Opresto” (like oppressed, get it?) on the building’s side. What? Did Nike think this was going to be easy?

If you haven’t already heard the rumblings — or, rather, seen the orchestrated media campaign scuffed up to mimic a grassroots vibe — Presto is the Nike-sponsored art gallery/showroom/club that opened in Kensington Market a few weeks ago. A marketer’s wet dream, the oh-so-cool raw space has already played daddy — complete with artist fees and complimentary shoes — to a slew of local musicians and artists, all in the hopes of getting alt-culture brand recognition for its burgeoning Presto line. Get the gear associated with people cooler than you.

Now going into its third art show with this week’s All I Need Is A Miracle (opening Thursday) and an invite-only party this Friday to celebrate the line’s launch in retail stores, the Presto space’s arty little face is being pressed up against growing local opposition.

“I think there’s a good chance this will backfire quite spectacularly,” says No Logo author Naomi Klein. “Kensington Market might have seemed like a funky, indie neighbourhood, but what Nike might not have realized is that it’s also ground zero for the activist community in Toronto. It’s these sorts of local nuances that can blow up in a brand’s face.”

Last year in Australia, Nike created a campaign about “the most offensive boots we’ve ever made,” with ad materials that imitated anti-globalization activist posters, billboards and Web sites. They were promptly mocked, parodied and run out of town.

In Toronto, Presto’s nondescript sign has been spray-painted with an expertly executed Nike swoosh. On Pride weekend, when popular local music scenesters the Hidden Cameras took the stage, one member called for a Presto boycott, and Rod Caballero of local electronic music collective Future Rhetoric is organizing a Presto counter-concert July 18 (location tba).

“We wanted to let people know about how Nike has tried to invade the artistic community on a sort of independent level,” says Caballero. “It’s just too close to home.” The show will feature local musicians like Jacob Thiesen and Clonk’s Neil Wiernik.

“There’s been a bit of protest,” admits Mike Farrell of Youthography, the marketing company running the Presto experiment. “But it’s not like some organized campaign. We expected a lot more of a backlash, but it hasn’t happened.”

“Everyone has a right to feel how they want,” says Michelle Noble, public affairs manager for Nike Canada. “When we moved in, there were other graffiti already. It’s not unique to us.”

While Presto is only a temporary marketing space (Nike moves out August 17), it immediately set pierced tongues a-wagging with a coy marketing campaign that includes buying space on garbage cans to “tag” them with the Presto graffiti key, sidewalk chalk drawings, rave-style hand flyers and low-key posters slapped up on lampposts right next to ones advertising OCAP’s “Pope Squat.”

Some musicians pulled out of performing when they discovered Presto was a Nike creation, and even artists still showing are taking their shots.

“My first thought was, I would love to draw some Reebok or Adidas shoes — that would be nice and subversive,” chuckles Matt Crookshank, the director of Queen West gallery Sis Boom Bah and one of the artists showing in All I Need Is A Miracle. “But that’s the one restriction — you can’t put any other logos in.”

And market folk aren’t particularly impressed with the fact that Presto is donating its proceeds from cover charges to St. Stephen’s across the street. “It’s a tithe, isn’t it?” snorts Kensington Market Action Committee member Sheldon Kohn. “Nike has problems with its image in the Third World. In the old days you just gave part of what you earned to the church and then you’d go to heaven. You’d have a nice clean image.”

“This whole marketing strategy is a tremendous symbol of Nike’s weakness,” says Klein. “Nike used to be legendary in marketing circles because its swoosh was so powerful. Now it’s trying to make the swoosh disappear — its trying to distance itself from its own brand because it has so many negative associations.”

The other sad thing, of course, about the fact that the Hip New Art Space is funded by Nike, is that in an underfunded arts community, things like Nike will swoosh in and snack on the cultural spoils. “It’s a queasy alternative,” admits Presto co-curator Jeremy Bailey, “But for me it feels like an opportunity for people who are young and don’t have an extra $400 to rent gallery space. People don’t realize it’s really tough for artists to get shown.”

“I see the exploitation going both ways,” says Crookshank. “I’m not going to wear Nike, I’m not going to say I like Nike. I’m sort of torn, but I’m looking for opportunities to show my work, and in the current political landscape you have to use all kinds of strategies to get your art out there.”

As for the future of Presto, no word on whether the space will continue as a cultural zone once Nike pulls out in August. “I kind of wish it were continuing, because the buzz has been great,” boasts Farrell. “As it stands, the showroom is really a kind of cool, interactive billboard. Very SoHo. It’s a shame that other people aren’t stepping up to take over.”

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