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Does Design at Play celebrate culture jamming or marketing?

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The case of the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" fiasco in Boston was bound to happen if you think of all the ways corporations have attempted to capture the coveted youth market via graffiti tagging, culture jamming and other low-key mayhem. If you team very wealthy corporations and very adventurous, nose-thumbing street artists, eventually someone's going to get burned.

But corporations such as Time Warner Inc. need inventiveness, creativity, bad attitude and snarkiness to freshen up their merchandise. And nowhere is that concept of youthful mirth traded for grown-up paychecks and health insurance more evident than in the exhibition Design at Play: The High Design & Low-Brow Humor of Cartoon Network at the Museum of Design Atlanta. The high-water mark in attitudinal irony and irreverence, Cartoon Network is dedicated to kids -- whether the ones watching the cartoons or writing them -- rattling the cages of their elders. Which makes for the slightly vertigo-inducing effect of this show. CN's irreverent wisenheimer attitude -- as crucial to its identity as Wal-Mart's small-town ethos -- essentially bolsters the economic bottom line of a company founded on the presupposition that you can use irreverence to distinguish your product, distancing it from the more ham-fisted hard sell.

In what will feel to more skeptical viewers like ping-ponging around a room-sized ad or a trade-show booth, the first gallery in the exhibition, titled "Promoting the Brand," features posters, business cards, letterhead and other more conventional marketing tools that suggest whimsy yoked to the corporate plow. The room also features the online games and adorably hip graphics meant to bore the brand under the skin. In a street-art touch, the walls have been graphically "tagged" with blood-red paint and black-and-white Powerpuff Girls, "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" and other mascots of fun. But the assemblage of the kind of swag (T-shirts, boxes of cookies, calendars) that is used to make jaded TV journalists, ad buyers and cable affiliates pay attention is more sales pitch than analysis of the Cartoon Network way, a deification of the brand in a town where that kind of glorifying is probably redundant.

It would have been nice to have had some context, some discussion of the designers' influences or an academic's view on the phenomenon to help break through the sense that we have entered some hipper version of the Disney store.

The second gallery goes on to solidify the peculiar mix of mildly crude humor and ahead-of-the-curve tactics that allow Cartoon Network (and its Adult Swim confreres) to capture the attention of a chronically ADD populace. The "Red" campaign should be familiar to locals who observed the transformation of the scarlet billboards proclaiming "I pooted" and other cryptic messages soon accompanied by cartoon figures from "Camp Lazlo." Like many Cartoon Network offerings, this summer 2006 campaign strove to train kids in the modern armature of irony, irreverence and confusion about whether one was being culture-jammed or marketed to.

It is not until the third gallery that some of the meat and potatoes emerge -- there are animation cells, character sketches and background art for shows such as "Cow and Chicken" and "Samurai Jack." One of the most arresting features is the weirdly depopulated backgrounds that are remarkably serene and often quite beautiful before the frenzied, shrieking critters and nose-pickers enter stage right. This is the gallery that is going to make kids go crazy, with the enormous set pieces from television shows, including a complete retro-'60s living room where viewers can plop down to watch TV.

The odd impression this component of the show gives is of a genuine yearning for the past, a desire to really hunker down in the tacky living rooms of our own childhoods, even as we mock and parody the cuteness and lovability and feelings of security stoked by the characters we grew up on. It's a bipolar feeling. But why wouldn't it be, with a network as devoted as this one is to both indulging our desire for the empty pleasures of cartoons and then sadistically slapping our hand back from the cookie jar.

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