irregular times logoHitting the Blackspot

In December of 2003, it came to our attention that Adbusters, the outfit that sponsors Buy Nothing Day, wants you to buy something.

According to a article from October 2003, the Blackspot sneaker was to be made in a union shop in Missouri, Korea or Indonesia and would feature not a swoosh but a simple black spot. The sneaker was to at the same time tease branded sneaker makers like Nike and pay its producers a living wage. Adbusters pledged that any money made on sales of the Blackspot sneaker would be used to expand anti-brand production or fund other non-profit "culture jamming" projects.

Intrigued, I read all I could about the Blackspot campaign. Then I ran across a graphic of the "Blackspot prototype." I just knew I'd seen that sneaker before, and indeed I had. Witness the Blackspot sneaker and the Converse Chuck Taylor Model M9166 side by side:

Given that Adbusters is known for appropriating mass-produced images in order to make some point, I had to wonder: Is the Blackspot sneaker for real, or is Adbusters is having a culture-jam funny at the expense of the gullible and enthused people who really, truly, sincerely would like to see a sweat-free sneaker become available?

Well, that's a question, folks, and there's no better way to answer a question than to pose it to the responsible party. So we here at Irregular Times arranged an interview with Kalle Lasn, who is the editor of Adbusters and is the driving force behind the Blackspot sneaker campaign. In that interview Lasn had much to say, not only about sneaker production and "kicking Phil's ass", but also about inactivity among today's activists.

The text of that interview, taking place January 12, 2004, follows.

Irregular Times: We enjoy reading Adbusters quite a bit, but at Irregular Times we're a bit more interested in material conditions of production and consumption than in culture jamming, and one of the things that really intrigued us about the Blackspot sneaker was the idea that it could be produced under conditions of fair labor. We read that you were thinking about either producing in the United States, or in a union factory in Asia. Is that correct?

Kalle Lasn: Yes. So, there are many reasons why we are doing this. One of the reasons we want to do this is to set some new standards in the sneaker industry, and we're having quite a bit of trouble, actually, finding a factory. Some of our consultants are telling us there's not a single union factory in the whole of Asia.

IT: Really?

KL: Yeah! And then some others are telling us that there are a couple, and we were almost zeroed in on one union shop in South Korea that turned out to be a false lead. Then we went to Indonesia, and that may still work out, but it looks like that's half-dead too. Then we actually travelled all the way to China to check out this one place that we thought would be able to do it, and that wasn't quite right for us either. Now we're actually following up a few leads on a factory in the United States that may be able to do it, with some other shops in Europe that may be able to do it. So it's been quite a wild goose chase. But I should also tell you that I think that our consultants think they can find something pretty quickly. It looks like it will be either the U.S. or Europe.

We also have a long-term plan. We're talking with a couple of investors who have a two-year plan to open a sort of cooperative in China, which would be a landmark event. It would be not just the first union shop, but a cooperative in the heart of this huge dynamic capitalist country that at the moment doesn't have a single union shop in the whole land. Down the road, that looks like a pretty radical thing that we can do -- a curveball thrown into the whole sneaker industry that could set a precedent and really start changing things.

IT: Imagine socialism in the middle of capitalism in the middle of communism...

KL: Can you believe what that would be like? It's like a kick in the butt to Mao Zedong!

IT: It sounds like you've been putting a lot of work into finding the right labor circumstances. I wonder whether you have a document or a set of principles for what a fair production circumstance would be, that would allow you to say "Yes, this factory will work" or "No, this factory won't work?"

KL: Well, I must admit that we're not into this sort of documentation. This whole project is a grafted straight from the gut sort of project. We're going to cast a wide net, find what we think is the very best sneaker factory in the world that can produce our Converse knock-off, and then we're going to personally visit that place and check it out, and if we feel good about it, we'll take the plunge. Down the road we may sort of get a little bit more fastidious about it, but for the moment we're sort of flying by our guts.

IT: Could you give me, perhaps, a historical example? You say you've rejected a few factories already. What was it in those factories that you saw or didn't see that led you to say "No, this won't work?"

KL: Well, in South Korea it was quite simple. We had a lead on a union shop, and it was actually quite a fascinating union shop because it was a shop that Nike abandoned when it went union. So we thought, "Hey, this is perfect for us!" But then it turned out that under the pressure of competition from China, they had ceased to be a union shop, so we said "OK, forget about that."

In Indonesia it's still a bit muddy. We've heard about one shop there that has a 45-page agreement between workers and management, but we haven't quite solved the language problem there, so we don't quite know where that stands.

In China, when we went there we actually checked this one factory out, and as far as producing the shoe goes they were fantastic. They were giving us the price and quality that we wanted, but they were presenting a smiley, do-goody picture of their factory that was substantially true but wasn't true enough for us. They were spinning a big tale about how great their factory was that didn't turn out to be quite as true as they said it was. So we said, "No, we can't deal with them either."

IT: You know, something you just said a minute ago leads me to another question. You referred to your shoe as a "Converse knockoff." I have to admit, when I saw your shoe on the Blackspot sneaker website, I thought, "Boy, that looks a lot like a Converse!" So I did a bit of surfing, and I actually found on the Converse website a shoe that looks exactly like your shoe: the Chuck Taylor All-Star Black Unisex, Model M9166. It looks exactly like your shoe.

KL: That's actually our strategy. For a year or so, when we first started brainstorming on this, we had a bunch of designers trying to come up with the next cool sneaker that's cooler than this and cooler than whatever. Then, when Nike purchased Converse, when they purchased this shoe that for many people was really one of the cool shoes around for a long long time, then we figured, "Well, what the Hell?!? This is just the perfect strategy for us. We will basically come up with a Converse knockoff and tap into that market of all those people who want to have a Converse but don't want to buy it from Big Bad Nike." To get into the whole deal of "Who can produce the coolest shoe?", that didn't feel all that great to us either. This whole business of competing with [Nike CEO] Phil Knight about which shoe has got a better shade of black, that didn't feel like a direction we wanted to go in. There's lots of fantastic shoes out there; let's go with something that many factories around the world can already produce. What we're really selling is not so much a cooler shoe. What we're selling is a cooler brand. What we're really selling is an anti-logo. I think we can continue to find existing shoes that we can put that logo onto.

IT: So did you actually just take a picture of a Converse shoe and somehow take off the Converse logo?

KL: No! This is actually a prototype that was produced by that Chinese factory. Even though we decided not to go with this Chinese factory, this prototype will be very very close to what the final shoe will look like.

IT: Has Converse, or I guess now Nike, gotten in touch with you and hassled you?

KL: No, No.

IT: Because it looks like a Converse and some people might say that if it looks like a Converse and acts like a Converse, then you're legally edging in on Converse territory.

KL: No, not really. That kind of a canvas shoe -- although we may be actually using hemp -- although some people call it the "Converse" and some people call it the "whatever," is actually a very generic kind of shoe that dozens of factories around the world are able to produce, and have already produced for all kinds of clients. So we are not the first people in the world who are doing our own version of what some people call the "Chuck Taylor" but is really just a canvas retro shoe.

There are no legal problems. We looked into this, and our lawyers tell us there are no problems in us asking a factory to produce our own shoe for us.

IT: Well, that's helpful to know. I'd like to ask you to respond to something that people have written as criticism of the Blackspot. First of all, they say "It's not a black spot, it's a white spot!"

KL: Laughter.

IT: That's a pretty small criticism, right? But the bigger criticism underneath it is to say, "Well, even if you're just drawing a smudge, that's a brand."

KL: Of course it's a brand.

IT: You're just spreading a different brand, the brand that says, "Oh, we're the Adbusters people, we're the Culture Jammers!" It's just subscribing to someone else's brand, Kalle Lasn's brand rather than Phil Knight's brand. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

KL: Well, I respond to it by saying that when we first put that ad on the back page of our magazine, and when the first story on it was done by the Globe and Mail here in Canada, they phoned up Naomi Klein. She immediately threw cold water on it for exactly the same reasons that you just mentioned. We actually welcome that. We culture jammers feel that the political left recently has really lost its verve.

The old political left, they don't like capitalism, they don't like the marketplace, they don't like brands. We don't like the capitalism we have now, that's top down and driven by corporations like Nike, and we're trying to create a more bottom-up kind of capitalism. Ultimately, I don't think capitalism is going to disappear really soon, so why don't we just try to reform it rather than get rid of it? We also don't have a big problem with the marketplace. The current marketplace, I think, needs to be a true cost marketplace -- a marketplace where all the environmental and social costs of doing business are internalized into the price tags on products. But apart from that, I and a lot of culture jammers don't have a big problem with marketplaces.

When it comes to brands, well brands aren't going to disappear anytime soon either. Instead of pretending that all brands are bad and we should stay away from them, I think it's a wonderful and ballsy move to say, "Let's create our own anti-logo. Let's call it the Blackspot, and let's make it generic, and let's create this incredibly powerful nuclear glow around this anti-logo, and let's start putting it on sneakers, and let's start putting it on all kinds of other products in other fields, and let's ask the activists and culture-jamming community to start producing our own bottom-up kind of products that cut into the market share of some of these big corporations that tend to be dominating every area of our lives from sneakers to broadcasting to food. I mean, there's half a dozen big corporations that are controlling all those fields. So I think one solution to the problems of the world is not to play that old lefty game, but to think outside that old lefty box and come up with new ideas that actually work. So in a sense we're not just launching a sneaker and trying to kick Phil's ass, but we're also trying to jump over the dead body of the left here.

IT: ...although it would be not be fair to say this is completely unique. There are examples of folks out there also trying to do the same thing, such as the folks at American Apparel...

KL: Oh, no, of course not, obviously I'm exaggerating. I know there's some really good stuff going on there. Our magazine for the last 15 years has been one of the few outfits out there actually highlighting some of the good things that are happening.

Nonetheless, there is a feeling among the 60-70,000 culture jammers that have joined our network on the Internet and who read Adbusters that the political left has really lost it recently, that we really just can't get it up any more. The Democratic Party can't get it up any more. The activist left can't get it up any more. Miami was a fucking disaster for the anarchists and for the activist community. We lost big time there. We did nothing. We were totally powerless in Miami during the FTAA meeting. All in all, there's a feeling that the neocons are on a rampage and they're walking all over us.

I think that instead of hanging on to this old-style activism with people like Naomi Klein who immediately throw water on a new venture like the Blackspot sneaker. Instead of that old way of thinking, I think that we on the left have to rise to the challenge. I see the Blackspot sneaker and a bunch of initiatives that other people are doing as a way to think outside the lefty box and give the left a radical edge again, which it doesn't have at the moment.

IT: Well, the "old left" that you're referring to is really a new left which replaced a still older left. The older left was more focused on doing while the newer left concentrates on talking. So one of the attractions of something like the Blackspot sneaker is that it is an attempt to actually do something, and let others talk about it.

This leads to a question that's been nagging at me. There's a theory out there that this project is itself a statement. People who read Adbusters will notice that in those pages there are a lot of statements, statements within statements, and statements about the meaning of statements.

KL: Yes.

IT: So there's this theory out there that this shoe is actually never going to be produced. It's really just an exercise, and the goal of the exercise is to get people to react to the idea. To have articles out there that talk about this Blackspot sneaker, to get people really enthused about it, and then for someone in the Adbusters organization to stand up and say, "AHA! You see, you fools? You fell into the trap! You allowed yourselves to go capitalist. You allowed yourselves to be branded! You allowed yourselves to be co-opted, and here's why you're wrong, with Reasons A, B, C, and D..." The idea is that this is all an exercise in gotcha self-examination.

So what I would like to hear from you is an answer to a basic yes/no question: if there are 5,000 pre-orders, will this shoe be made?

KL: (laughing) Absolutely. The shoe will be made.

I've heard this a little bit before, but you put it so beautifully, you had me laughing more than I've laughed in weeks. You know, this sort of thing happening in the activist community is an example of just how fucked up the activist community has become. They're literally stewing in their own juices! They're still so much into that Po-Mo [postmodern] deconstructionist game that it's all they can really do. I mean, they're the ones playing the second-guessing game! They are suspicious of the fact that we mean what we say, and they prefer to play these word games and these mind games, these mind-fucking games. They prefer that to actually believing that somebody's for real. To me, it says more about the activist community than it says about us.

IT: But those people are saying that's actually what you're planning to do, to say something about the activist community, and to use this as a way to do that.

KL: But to me this is an example of the kind of post-modern cynicism that has crept into the activist community, where we actually prefer to entertain ideas like that, and to squish around in our own juices, than to get up off our asses and to do something! Or even just get out there and pre-order a sneaker, or actually believe that this could happen and that this could change or at least tweak capitalism. Or that the Blackspot sneaker could actually kick Phil's ass.

What you just described, and what just got me laughing, was the kind of cynicism that has become an integral part of the activist community. To me, it's a confirmation of my desire to jump over that cynicism, to jump over the dead body of the left.

I don't know if I described it earlier, but I want to describe the people who accuse us of just launching another brand. I would like to point out that the kind of cool that Nike has produced with the swoosh, the feeling that he has been able to induce in teenagers all around the world, where they feel if they are lacking in self-esteem, or if they don't quite feel confident enough about their sexuality or whatever it is, and then they feel kind of funny walking around their own high school, that they can buy a pair of Nike sneakers and then all of a sudden they will have confidence and empowerment.... To me, this is the mindfuck that Phil Knight is selling. And the week after someone has spent $100 on a pair of shoes, she or he will feel really let down and even less confident, as they realize that you can't buy pseudo-corporate cool and expect that to fix up your life.

What I'm trying to say is that our brand, the Blackspot brand, is a real form of empowerment. Yes, it's a brand. It's a product. But we stand for a real empowerment. We stand for grassroots capitalism. We stand for kicking Phil's ass and reforming the sneaker industry in some way. Down the road we may be able to go into cooperatives and do all kinds of weird and wonderful things with this brand of ours. So maybe some teenager can wear these and get some real empowerment, you know, be able to explain to the other people in the schoolyard that this brand has got a good chance of tweaking capitalism and cutting into Phil Knight's market share.

IT: Let's talk about some of the phrases you've been using. You say you want to kick Phil Knight's ass.

KL: Oh, yeah.

IT: You talk about what Phil Knight is selling. But eventually you will be selling something. You will be selling a shoe, just as Phil Knight sells a shoe. So very practically speaking, when it gets to the point that this shoe is being produced, are you prepared to be the next Phil Knight? If someone says, "Let's send the FLA or, something with more bite, the WRC to inspect YOUR factories," are you going to let them do that? If someone asks, "What variety of glues do you use in YOUR sneakers," how will you react to that?

KL: Sure, absolutely, there's going to be total transparency right through this whole thing. Once we find this factory, we're going to visit it ourselves, we're going to delve into all these things, we'll publish details in Adbusters magazine. Anybody can go there to verify. There's absolutely no problem whatsoever with any of that.

Yes, I am prepared to be the next Phil Knight, but the difference will be that I'm running a non-profit group here. Every single penny we make off the Blackspot sneaker will be put back into social marketing campaigns, and into Buy Nothing Days, and into expanding the market share of the Blackspot sneaker. Every single penny that we make will be used to make the world a better place. Phil Knight takes his millions and puts it into his stocks and pays hundreds of millions of dollars to celebrities to create his mindfuck cool for him.

So there's a huge difference between what we're doing here and what Phil Knight is doing. Anybody like Naomi Klein who likes to put us in the same category as Phil Knight and tries to dismiss us as just another brand like Nike, they just don't understand what's going on here.

There's still a 5-10% chance that things will overwhelm us. But at the moment, I think we're on track, and I think it's going to happen, and I think it's going to happen in the late spring.

IT: All right, where can those who reject what Naomi Klein has said, and who believe this is actually going to happen, go to get more information or to get involved, either by spreading the word about the Blackspot sneaker or pre-ordering the sneaker themselves?

KL: Well, they can go to, and they can check out what we're doing, they can read about the philosophy behind this thing, they can read about what we're trying to achieve, and they can pre-order the shoe. If they're an activist and they don't for a minute want to buy a shoe but they do want to get involved in blackspotting a Nike Town store, they can get involved on that level via the site. I hope that thousands of people get involved in their own sweet way.

--- end interview, 1/12/04 ---

So there you have it. According to Kalle Lasn, the Blackspot Sneaker is not a ruse but an actual production line that will be enacted in the late spring. Is this assertion itself part of a sneaky post-modernist culture jam in which interviewers like myself are enlisted in a program of tweaking people interested in actual fair trade, non-sweatshop products? Or will an actual ethical Blackspot sneaker be made and sold? The next few months will tell whether Adbusters and Kalle Lasn fit better into the category of doers or talkers.

In the meantime, we have discovered an interesting parallel: No Sweat is offering its own pre-sales of a "union-made," "fair trade" sneaker. Guess what the shoe looks like. Yep, that's right. We'll be trying to snag an interview with the folks at No Sweat in the next few days to ask them about their sneaker, the Blackspot, and where in the heck the twain have met or shall meet. Down the rabbit hole we go... check this spot for more.

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