Ceci N'est Pas Une Corporation

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In 1990, when John Bielenberg was moving his graphic design boutique, Bielenberg Design, from one set of offices in San Francisco's trendy SOMA district to another set of offices in San Francisco's trendy SOMA district, he found himself at a crossroads. "On the conference room table we had all these samples of stuff we'd done," he recalls. "And I was kind of overwhelmed by this wave of depression, thinking that even though some of those things were really effective and they had won awards and all that kind of stuff, it seemed kind of insignificant."

In response to this "pre-midlife career crisis," Bielenberg, now 42, prepared a 4x6-foot poster and sent it, without explanation, to fellow graphic designers. Over yellow and black danger stripes, it read simply: "Warning - We have met the enemy and he is us." So began Bielenberg's avocation as a satirist of all things corporate, branded, and/or designed. The poster was followed by a hard-bound book printed on recycled paper that repeated the phrase, "This book is printed on recycled paper," over and over again, and by the first annual report of Virtual Telemetrix Inc. (VT), an imaginary company that has become Bielenberg's nom-de-spoof. Virtual Telemetrix has since issued several annual reports, a catalog, a handbook for a proprietary branding scheme, and a proposal for a Las Vegas casino - prolific output for a company that, as its founder explains, "was supposed to sound like something, but it really wasn't anything."

The faux-corporate exploits of Bielenberg and his co-conspirators, meanwhile, have garnered honors from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the American Center for Design, as well as occasional press notices and, most recently, an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. According to SFMoMA curator of architecture, design and digital projects Aaron Betsky, VT's "hook is that it makes us aware of both the absurdity and the beauty of this kind of corporate design. What makes it work is that it's both a vicious satire and a beautiful restatement of corporate culture."

The voice of Virtual Telemetrix is ominous, its products bizarre. The non-offerings in its 1996 catalog - Ceci N'est Pas Un Catalogue (appropriately, VT's recent museum run overlapped with a Magritte exhibition) - include a Dadaist conversation piece, Liver on a Stalk, and Fashion Blinders for shielding one from "distractions" and other "frightening sights." The company's logo is eerily authoritarian - seemingly borrowed from bygone, sci-fi visions of the dread future - while its corporate dispatches from a Mr. Williams of Boston (a high school friend of Bielenberg's) invariably disintegrate into New Economy word-salad. "Shareholders are stakeholders, stakeholders are risk takers, risk takers are thought leaders," Williams writes in a message to shareholders accompanying the company's 1997 annual report. "And this leads me to think that risk takers realize that the stakes outweigh the risks."

"I call it the illusion of content, which I see all the time in pieces," Bielenberg says. "It just looks like it says something." VT's 1998 project, prepared for the AIGA Brandesign Conference in New York, was an austere, bright orange booklet titled Quantitative Summary of Integrated Global Brandstrategy. Its stark, lightly-designed contents - graphs and charts illustrating sham concepts like the Pictorial Legacy of Brand-Genetics and the BrandValue Shrink Principle - are pitch-perfect satires of proprietary marketing strategies that, at first glance, are difficult to discern from the real thing.

Ditto the Virtual Telemetrix Case Study Casino Program, distributed last year at the AIGA's annual conference in Las Vegas. The colorful, perfect-bound booklet features a blend of seemingly authentic collateral and collage reminiscent of The Medium is the Massage, the 1967 collaboration between Marshall McLuhan and designer Quentin Fiore. Graphs and statistics are senselessly juxtaposed with development plans; with images of monuments and people in pain; and with a pitch for a pharmaceutical gambling cure, Casinol, that delivers either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat depending on which side of the poker-chip-shaped pill lands on the tongue.

For VT's next trick - timed to correspond with the SFMoMA show, which closed last month - Bielenberg has taken the company public. Visitors to www.virtualtelemetrix.com can sign up to receive free shares in the company via e-mail. True to VT's commitment to lampooning biz-speak, potential stockholders are warned: "Virtual Telemetrix does not exist, has no operating history, and has not, and will not, generate any revenues." - a disclaimer that could be just as easily applied to many latter-day, real-life IPOs. Which begs the question: Is Virtual Telemetrix really a parody or just a very agreeable client?

"It's actually become very difficult to satirize the activity of a lot of corporations," Bielenberg says. "Taking Virtual Telemetrix public is not out of the realm of possibility. There have certainly been a lot of companies that have gone public over the past two years that really had nothing but a spin on something."

As for the spin at Bielenberg's firm - which has taken on branding, strategy, and collateral projects for a range of actual corporations, including Deutsche Bank and e-services firm Scient - he says annual forays into the land of virtual capitalism have had a positive effect on design work for paying clients. And like the VT work, the firm's efforts for genuine companies have garnered honors from the New York Art Directors Club and I.D. Magazine, among others. "It's very important, I think, for our office to always have these sort of weird things that we're doing," Bielenberg reflects. "It inspires our other work, and it also gives us a creative outlook we wouldn't have otherwise."

But has VT helped Bielenberg exorcise the enemy within, 10 years after he realized the enemy was him? "I don't think so," he says with a chuckle. "Not as long as I'm doing this for a living."

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