Distorted space

Dismantling the advertising city – Paper on subvertising / adbusting / brandalism

Having been going through a tough period due to never-ending Covid-19 symptoms, I am really pleased to have received some good news. My paper on the urban politics of subvertising has now been published in one of my favourite geography journals, Environment and Planning D. Check it out here. It’s been written on the back of over two years of ethnographic research with subvertisers in London, Paris, New York and Brussels.

Big big shout-out to all the subvertisers who have so generously brought me into their lifeworlds throughout that period. Your work helped spark my departure from my advertising strategy job at Saatchi & Saatchi 6 years ago, for which I will remain forever grateful.

Figure 1

A short intro to the paper: Commonly also referred to as adbusting or brandalism, subvertising is the illicit practice of intervening into urban advertising space – from graffiti scribbles and removed adverts, to full-blown billboard takeovers and digitally hacked adverts. The paper investigates the long histories, motivations and urban politics behind the practice. It argues that what is most interesting about contemporary forms of subvertising is its insistence on the importance of a city’s ‘communicative commons‘. Uniquely, subvertisers show that a radical common use of this commons can only emerge through the deactivation of rights, laws, identity and ends. In emphasising the role negation plays in urban politics, it troubles calls for radical cities that are founded on property rights, shared value-systems or other forms of constituted power. The latter, subvertisers remind us, can end up reproducing the exclusionary logic of consecration, and the important dangers that loom there.

Pessimism, futility, and extinction: interview with Eugene Thacker

My interview with Eugene Thacker has been published in the journal Theory, Culture & Society.

You can find it here or download a non-paywalled pamphlet version here.


The abstract: In this interview with Thomas Dekeyser, Eugene Thacker elaborates on the central themes of his work. Addressing themes including extinction, futility, human universalism, network euphoria, political indecision and scientific nihilism, the interview positions Thacker’s work within the contemporary theoretical conjuncture, specifically through its relation to genres of thought his work is often grouped with or cast against: vitalism, speculative realism, and accelerationism. More broadly, however, the interview offers a unique insight into Thacker’s approach to the thinking, doing and writing of ‘philosophy’.

A history of subvertising

The history of subvertising

The production of advertising space has always been tangled up in negotiation, struggle and contestation. A long history of subvertising, perhaps as old as advertising itself, proves the point.

A caveat: What follows is an admittedly limited account of subvertising history. Much subvertising goes unnoticed and remains undocumented. Not all subvertisers seek, or manage to gain, media exposure. Much activity, from small scribbles to large takeovers, also remains underground out of a legal concern. There is also a bias towards subvertising in Western countries; in part, I believe, due to the lack of recording and publication of these practices in a wide variety of countries. However, I also believe that subvertising is currently, and historically, a predominantly Western practice, at least in terms of its large-scale and collaborative expressions. See however a number of exceptions to this in the timeline.

Click here for the high resolution PDF of the latest version (July 2020): a history of subvertising.

Thank you to Brandalism, Jordan Seiler and Emily Angelopoulos for the input!

On giving up on this world: an interview with Andrew Culp


When I first read Andrew Culp’s Dark DeleuzeI was deeply overwhelmed. I had not been ‘touched’ on such visceral register by critical theory probably since I read Michel Serres’ Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? four years ago. The work the latter did for me is almost ungraspable: it gave me the final courage I required to flee the advertising industry. Dark Deleuze sparked something different, but of equal intensity: it passionately set ablaze the ideas of ‘affirmative politics’ that I had been unconformable with for awhile. Affirmative politics felt and sounded still too much like the supposed ‘creative ethos’ that reverberates in the offices of the contemporary advertising industry. With Dark Deleuze, I found tools for exploring anarchy and anarchism. To sharpen these tools, I interviewed Andrew Culp for Society and Space. You can read it here.

I propose something not dissimilar to Foucault’s methodological suggestion in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978), that power can be coded through either law or war. As an anarchist, I never really developed a taste for the law, so I choose war.

What might it mean, Andrew Culp asks in Dark Deleuze, to “give up on all the reasons given for saving this world” (Culp, 2016b: 66)? In response, the interview explores the pathways offered by a “dark” Deleuze, a politics of cruelty, Afro-Pessimism, partisan knowledges, destituent power, and tactics of escape.

Ethnographies into the illegal


My paper with Bradley Garrett on the political potential, situated difficulty and ethical validity of  ethnographies into the illegal has been published in Area. Why did we write it? Well, because this (from my pre-PhD time) still resonates today:

Yesterdays PhD interview started off seamlessly. We shared theoretical interests, political hopes and I think I responded adequately to some of the more provocative questions. Towards the end, however, when we started discussing the ethnographic component of the proposed methodology, the temperature of our conversation dropped. Hmmmmm, this all sounds a bit too innovative for this university, the proposed supervisor said. It felt like this signalled the end of his, and his universitys, interest in my project with subvertising practitioners. (Author one, MA research diary, January 2015)

And because we need to think seriously about how to deal with ethical ambiguity that marks ‘illicit ethnographies’, including moments (described in the paper) like these:

When I arrived at the subvertising workshop a few hours ago, people were already getting seated, notepads and information packs in hand. The community centre was packed. Two men arrived late, just after I started my presentation on subvertising history and theory. They slotted in the background and kept to themselves, didnt mingle with any other participants. I didnt think much of it until later, when during the practical part of the workshop, they spoke for the first time. Are you thinking of doing any digital billboard takeovers? Slightly uncomfortable, my co-presenter Donna responded after a moment of silence: No, no, these are legally a wholly different thing. What were doing is closer to criminal damage. . .’

As people gathered after the workshop, the two same men perhaps ten to twenty years older than the average crowd approached us with a certain sense of urgency. Can we have your full name? Donna, by now severely suspicious, responded: Erm, no, I dont see why youd want that. We want to follow you on Facebook. Oh, okay, well you can follow the collectives name, Donna suggested. They kept pressing until we pretty much ran away from them.

Not knowing what to do, I rang my friend Amelia and talked her through the details: the layout of the evening, the mens looks, their not-so-subtle questioning, how they had wrenched as much info as possible, and how they had this peculiar determinacy and almost arrogance in their voices. Private investigators, she responded shortly. And added, before I had taken in what that actually meant, prepare for a raid.

Now Im sitting here, in my living room. Im actually terrified. FUCK. I guess this is what my research-participants have had to deal with all along. It now makes sense, more viscerally than ever. (Author one, field notes)

Anyway, the full paper is available here.

Call for papers – Besides affirmation: geography and ‘negativity’


Besides affirmation: geography and ‘negativity’

Call For Papers – Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers New Orleans, April 10-14 2018.

Session organisers: Thomas Dekeyser (University of Southampton); Joe Gerlach (University of Bristol); Thomas Jellis (University of Oxford).

‘the world is brimming with negative possibility…’ (Thacker, 2015: 9)

‘Affirmation’ and ‘vitalism’ have become prominent motifs in a cultural geographic thought invested in a distinctly Spinozist and Deleuzo-Guattarian ethos. Such an ethos underscores a hesitant disciplinary predilection for affirmative narratives – propagated, in part, by a concern for ontologies of becoming, and an ethics of joy. Against these vitalist refrains, an emerging set of critiques – established largely outside geography (see, however, Harrison, 2015; Gerlach, 2017; Rose, 2014) – are pushing against a vitalist or affirmative tonality in the social sciences and humanities. Positioning affirmation alongside sacrifice, capacities to act alongside capacities not to act, such critiques ask: what is affirmed in affirmation? To what does one consent if, and when, one consents to affirmation, hope and vitality? What is lost? And how does affirmation ‘play out’ in light of intensifying socio-economic expectations of connectivity (Culp, 2016), creativity (Osborne, 2003), compulsory happiness (Ahmed, 2010), productivity and usefulness (Berry and Galloway, 2016)?

Such questions are posed within a disparate array of intellectual and activist genres, namely ‘afro-pessimism’ (Sexton, 2016), ‘conspirational communism’ (Culp, 2016), ‘black nihilism’ (Warren, 2015), ‘insurrectionary communisation’ (Tiqqun; The Invisible Committee), ‘cosmic pessimism’ (Thacker, 2015) and ‘queer negativity’ (Caserio et al., 2006). Harnessing these conceptual energies, this session looks to explore ways in which geography might engage with the taboo of negation and negativity. The aim of the session is not to trace a singular line of ‘negative thought’, but instead it looks to inflect geographical conceptions of ‘ontology’, ‘nature’, ‘the body’, ‘affect’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘performance’, and the ‘political’.

We welcome contributions that speak to those topics, and we are particularly interested in the following themes:

  • ‘Negative’ conceptions of ‘life’, ‘subjectivity’ and ‘the body’: subjectivisation / desubjectivisation, individuation / disindividuation, potentiality / impotentiality, symmetry / asymmetry, affirmation / sacrifice, being / non-being, relation / non-relation.
  • ‘Negative’ conceptions of ‘affect’: capacities not to affect, vulnerability, dread, indifference, nonrelationality.
  • ‘Negative’ conceptions of ‘the political’: disappearance, invisibility, refusal, escape, disconnection, negativity, non-communication, abjection, disidentification (beyond identity politics), beyond a politics of hope.
  • ‘Negative’ approaches to neoliberalism: undoing the ‘happiness turn’, the pull of ‘connectivity’, the productivity paradigm.
  • Melancholia, the monstrous, and geography.
  • Historical (dis)similarities between geography and afro-pessimism, black nihilism.
  • Historical (dis)similarities between geography and techno-/insurrectionary-anarchism.

Please send abstracts (no more than 250 words) to Thomas Dekeyser (t.dekeyser@soton.ac.uk) by 14th October.

Cited works

Ahmed, S. (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Berry, D. and Galloway, A. (2016) A Network is a Network is a Network: Reflections on the Computational and the Societies of Control. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(4), pp. 151–172.

Caserio, R., Edelman, L., Halberstam, J., Muñoz, J., & Dean, T. (2006) The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory. PMLA, 121(3), pp. 819- 828.

Culp, A. (2016) Dark Deleuze. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gerlach, J.  (2017) Middle Hope. Cultural Geographies, 24(2), pp. 333–339.

Harrison, P. (2015) After Affirmation, or, Being a Loser: On Vitalism, Sacrifice, and Cinders. GeoHumanities, 1(2), pp. 285-306.

Osborne, T. (2003) Against ‘creativity’: a ­philistine rant. Economy and Society, 32(4), pp. 507-525.

Rose, M. (2014) Negative governance: vulnerability, biopolitics and the origins of government. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39, pp. 209–223.

Sexton, J. (2016) Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word. Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, 29, available at: https://doi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02

Thacker, E. (2015) Cosmic Pessimism. Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing.

Warren, C. (2015) Black Nihilism and Politics of Hope. CR: The New Centennial Review, 15(1), pp. 215-248.

Jordan Seiler & (non-)communication

I’ve written a text about Jordan Seiler‘s series of works titled Collisions, especially focusing on the aesthetic qualities of his work. The text will be published alongside texts from Kurt Iveson, Jeff Ferrell, and others in a zine Jordan is publishing specifically on his abstract works in urban space. Any thoughts welcome, the text still needs to be finalised.


With an almost hypnotic quality, Jordan Seiler’s confident symmetries and order stand stark against the chaos of urban life. They draw me into the world of incessant repetition I am so used to: visit this, dream that, share these, buy those, visit this, dream that, share these, buy those, and so on, and so on. Repeated over and over again, but fundamentally colourless. We are left with a sense of numbness, a certain incapacity to dream wildly, at night, without first passing through the frames of advertising space. They are evoking stories and passions I can’t quite trace back. The source has become so all-encompassing, so omnipresent that its contours have blurred to the point of invisibility.

In effect, outdoor advertising is part of that realm deemed non-political by most. They seem to forget that those who determine the functions, organisation and access of space, are conducting an essential form of governance. Through the careful management of access, outdoor advertising is in the business of obliterating traces of other forms of life. Jordan Seiler’s artworks shake up the routine, and definitive existence of that space and the processes that make it up. The works expose space’s hidden dependence on social, material and legal productions, that is, its hidden constructedness. Absence, here, is all but a void: in making-absent advertising, he is underscoring its given (omni)presence. With their abstracts compositions, this materialised void takes up a space held at maximum distance of advertising aesthetic, without collapsing into the mundanity of a poster-less advertising space. The empty ad is a sight we are too deeply and unconsciously accustomed to, a commonplace sight in the commodity circuits of the outdoor advertising industry that is too much part of the advertising machine and its temporary incapacities to sell media space. A solid black or white poster would, as a result, fail to catch the attention of passers-by. Jordan Seiler’s work, by contrast, functions as an anonymous circuit breaker.

But more than a demand to not take for granted the streets, they disrupt the ways in which our bodies fit their assumed functions in relation to those streets. The initial effect is dis-identification: an encounter with his work questions and troubles taken-for-granted urban identities and habits. It undoes them to cause a sudden distancing from the immediate situation. But it does this in a very personal way: we are directly confronted with our own conforming to ascribed identities, the sleeping of our bodies, our incapacity to think and act beyond the shackles of urban governance. Jordan Seiler understands that, to build a new world, we need to rebuild ourselves and our existing relations to the world. Towards that rebuilding, what he is offering is a pause that directs us towards our own feelings, thoughts and relations.


Despite the binary aesthetic of his installations, Jordan Seiler’s vision is by no means constructed through simple dichotomies of us/them or good/evil. By not mimicking advertising aesthetics, let alone the visual language of a particular brand (as is the case with culture jamming inspired subvertising), he is less concerned with critiquing the most despicable of advertisers, and more with expressing itself in the ethos of a more generalised questioning, one that addresses us not them.

In this sense, I like to think of Jordan Seiler’s work as closer to sabotage than to propaganda. He is unwilling to make the advertiser’s mistake. His is not a grasp for power and monologue, but for dialogue and encounter. Unlike the advertiser’s, his works are wrapped in a beautiful modesty: they refuse any claims of knowing what shape or from others’ desires should take. He replaces the creation of desire with the desire for creation: a symbolic transformation in which all are to partake. This focus on collective emancipation and empowerment arises not out of an incapacity to imagine alternative futures, but from a strong belief in a simple premise: that potential futures will and must arise out of our collaborative endeavours, not from the mind of singular author. The future of our cities must be in the hands of us all. This is why he appears so careful to withdraw from sketching out utopian ideals of an advertising-free city. His works, it seems to me, want to trigger the acceleration of the spontaneous proliferation of texts in our cities, beyond the monopoly of commercial speech, rather than slowing them down into a mute city. He is not concerned with formulating a prototype for future uses of the city, a new urban order, and more with creating breathing space out of which alternatives to emerge. He is creating temporary spaces of non-communication out of which, he hopes, permanent circuits of communication might emerge. The latter will form the energetic charge for a renewed collective imagination.

His dreams appear by no means limited to rhetorical persuasion towards rational thought in the sense that Habermas would have loved to see it. The works are more concerned with destabilisation than with any rational debate. His are triggers for deeply embodied action, for wild fantasies, for the acceleration of an impassioned urban life, one overwhelmed by an excess of chance encounters, for an urban space with which we develop an ever-deepening relation. But, as is common to posters in ad spaces, these calls more often that not remain unheard. What happens when Jordan Seiler’s, and other subvertisers’, disruptions become part of our urban anticipation, performing little less than the reproduction of an expected aesthetic? This is a threat amplified by the aesthetic embeddedness of the works. The rhythms and directions of their sharp shapes often blend into the background seamlessly. In those instances, hey fail to break the protective film of urban bodies. As one critic wrote, ‘Subvertising at its best is like a skip on a record that the needle passes over with a minor interruption’. The work intervenes only temporarily, and through this, it unavoidably holds within it the premise of urban life circling back to its normal state.


And by throwing up exciting art, is it not also rendering the mundane spaces of outdoor advertising sacred again? Outdoor advertising becomes a potential site of art and excitement; something to look out for during walks through the city. I can imagine the CEO of an outdoor advertising company secretly smiling at yet another of Jordan Seiler’s interventions. The CEO knows the world is excited by Jordan Seiler’s work, and by extension, by the spaces that hold them, which in turn garner renewed attention. Finally, they are receiving the desired fetish status the CEO so long sought for – a dream materialised in one of Jordan Seiler’s cinematic images framed carefully amidst the sleekness of a penthouse boardroom.

But to stop at that dreary sight would be to offer a premature ending and to dismiss the temporarily extensive character of Jordan Seiler’s artwork. Knit together, each and every of the installations produce a collective charge capable of facilitating a gentle push for others to pick-up and proliferate. In my mind, the fight Jordan Seiler is battling was never about advertising per se. It was always about the true promise the amplification of social exchange and encounter holds for tangling new realities, beyond the monopoly of corporate urban advertising, surely, but more importantly, beyond the impasse of our impoverished present times of social, mental and environmental decline. In this sense, it operates in resonance with others for whom the profitable fragmentation of the world is not the end, with those refusing to be constantly reduced to urban ‘consumers’, with those preferring acting to being acted upon. Because this is not necessarily about a shared practice but about a common idea of life, these actors largely exceed the field of subvertising. Here my hope knows no limits. To use the words of the anarchist collective Tiqqun, together with a diverse set of practices all over the world, Jordan Seiler shows ‘that we can organise ourselves, and that this capacity is fundamentally joyful.’ They are, then, not fuelled by a melancholic attempt at saving a drowning world. They are driven by the joy of producing the conditions for a novel, unprecedented world, lifted high above the depleted oceans that are the present.


The affective politics of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect.

It has taken a while, but my article discussing the implications of the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect for the (non-representational) geographies of architectural has finally been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Gordon Matta-Clark started off by performing illegal building cuts into abandoned buildings, offering visitors a dream-like, yet disorientating experience of architectural life, while opening up our imaginations of what architectures-to-come might entail. It has been slightly off my radar since my PhD pays little attention to activities unfolding outside of the realm of ‘subverting’. Still, I recommend you to have a look – it features some of Marc Petitjean’s amazing images of the work. You can find it here.


Here is the abstract: This paper contributes to a burgeoning concern with the ‘critical geographies of architecture’. The central argument is that recent architecture–geography encounters – inspired by non-representational approaches to material mutability and affective inhabitation – are failing to connect with socio-political framings of the architectural. In this light, the paper aligns Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural artwork Conical Intersect (1975) with the Deleuzo-Guattarian axiom of micropolitics and macropolitics to re-insert the architectural subject as a microtexture of political forms imbued with (1) asymmetrical assemblages of material volatility, (2) restricted capacities of ‘dwelling or being with’ architecture and (3) bounded notions of living affectively. I suggest Conical Intersect foregrounds architectural space as a meeting of dreamworlds and institutional effects. In its piercing of that space of interaction, the artwork produces an architectural form freed from the conventions of legal and physical constraints to suggest the potency of alternative modes of living with and living in architecture that should be of primary interest to critical geographies of architecture and beyond.





Video art as a methodological power of the false

[extract from RGS-IBG 2016 conference paper, full version here]

It is relevant to consider video art as pushing geographic methods towards what Deleuze, primarily in his second book on cinema but also in different places, terms the ‘powers of the false’. Put simply, if true narration refers to forms of narrative that unify, represent, control and identify forces, temporalities, characters, social realities, and so on, then, by contrast, false narration actively opens up towards the irreducible multiplicity of the event for the purpose of fabulation of a people to come. As Deleuze notes, and following Nietzsche’s philosophy, ‘The false ceases to be a simple appearance or even a lie, in order to achieve that power of becoming which constitutes series or degrees, which crosses limits, carries out metamorphoses, and develops along its whole path an act of legend, or story-telling.’ (2013, 283) Thus, rather than making claims towards any ideals of truthfulness or representation, video art is explicit in refraining from a will to truth and instead, produces its own reality, and its own source of inspiration. So, how then are we to start enrolling video methods as methodological powers of the false? I want to suggest a double Deleuzian movement may be a fertile conceptual point-of-departure.

Movement 1: figuration, figural

The first movement is conceptualised by Deleuze in his work on the painter Francis Bacon: the move from the figurative to the figural. The production of the figural configures an act of balancing between figuration and non-figuration, where figuration refers to representation and illustration, and non-figuration to absolute deterritorialisation or total abstraction. As such, as Deleuzian art theorist O’Sullivan points out, the movement towards the figural does ‘not involve a simple turning away from the figure or from the human, but a kind of stretching or twisting of it’, a turning to forces of falsification (O’Sullivan 2006, 64) The resultant logic is one of sense and sensation, rather than of essence; its intensity being more directly perceptually felt than objectively real. If in paintings such as those of Francis Bacon, as Deleuze points out, the figural consists of ‘asignifying and nonrepresentative lines and zones, line-strokes and colour-patches’ (Deleuze 2003, 101), then one way in which video artists have sought to achieve this movement is by attending to technological failure.

Technological failure in video is usually regarded by geographers as a feature to be avoided at all costs. The geographer Michael Gallagher, for instance, insists that ‘leaving audio to take care of itself or hoping for some miraculous post-production quick fix for sloppy sound […] is likely to be detrimental to the quality of video research’ (Gallagher, 2015: 166). Video artists such as Rosa Menkman, by contrast, enrol ‘glitches’ as productive points of uncertainty. Glitches, as short-lived faults in hardware and software, are effected here, in the words of O’Sullivan, ‘To break a world and to make a world.’ (O’Sullivan, 2009: 251)

In Menkman’s video The Collapse of PAL we recognise a landscape, or at least we think we recognise a landscape. It’s familiar yet estranging. It shakes as if experiencing an earthquake, almost collapsing onto itself, leaving it hanging somewhere in between the truthful and fiction, in between representation and non-representation. Menkman hints at the purpose of her skewing of landscape through glitches: ‘a source for new patterns, anti-patterns and new possibilities that often exist on a border or membrane (of, for instance, language).’ (Menkman, 2011: 340) Because the material forces take on their own lives, creating worlds beyond both control and expectation, what Menkman’s video production shows is an embracing of ambiguity, a being open to chance encounters and a being unafraid of not knowing, It is thus less occupied with a reproduction of ‘truthful’ past sensations, instead, in opening up to and manipulating material forces of uncertainty to produce the figural, that is, to produce ‘false’ future perceptions, sensations, and relations to the world.

Movement 2: movement-image, time-image

In addition to the one from figuration to the figural, there’s a second movement of the powers of the false central to strands of video art with relevance to geographic methods: the one from movement-image towards time-image. Both concepts are, again, drawn from Deleuze’s second book on cinema. Put briefly, in this book he draws on Bergson’s syntheses of time, to outline what he considers to be a significant divergence in approach to temporality between pre-war cinema and post-war cinema. Where the movement-image of pre-war cinema projected time as chronological, linear and universal variation, the time-image of post-war attends directly to the corporeal multi-dimensionality and non-linearity of time, recognising that, as Italian film director Fellini suggests, ‘We are constructed in memory; we are simultaneously childhood, adolescence, old age and maturity’ (Fellini in Deleuze 2013, 104). As such, in the words of Deleuze, [time-images] ‘shatter the empirical continuation of time, the chronological succession, the separation of the before and the after’ (Deleuze 2013, 160).

So can this mean for video productions as constituting a power of the false? In Time Delay Room by Dan Graham (1974), we see a man walking into a room to witness a video installation. The rooms depicted on the two screens remain empty. Seconds after his actual entrance, the left screen presents his entrance. Seeing him standing still in front of the screen offers the illusion that image and non-image are now in-sync. As we see him lift his arm in only one register, we realise time is out-of-joint. Chronological, rational or truthful time of the movement-image is warped and destabilised to cultivate ‘false’ movements and ‘false’ continuity, where at certain times not-necessarily true pasts co-exists, and other times, incompossible events appear simultaneously. The aim here is not to smoothen difference out, but to bring together differently charged temporalities in an act of disjuncture which exceeds the potential of the sum of its parts. The resulting irrational intervals generate a hard-to-grasp feedback loop between different events, different times, different participants and their different acts of communications. Through a form of montage, the work is thus concerned with co-producing new events, temporalities, identities, rather than with arresting them. The time-image embodies a methodological potential for geographic video methods that is calling for further exploration.


Deleuze G 2003 Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation London, Continuum

Deleuze G 2013 [1985] Cinema II: the Time-Image London, Bloomsbury Academic

Gallagher M 2015 Working with Sound in Video: Producing an Experimental Documentary about School Spaces In Bates C ed Video Methods: Social Science Research in Motion New York, Routledge 165-186

Manning E 2015 Against method In Non-representational Methodologies: Re-envisioning research Vannini P ed London, Routledge

Menkman R 2011 Glitch Studies Manifesto In Video Vortex Reader II: Moving images beyond Youtube Available online at http://art310-f12-hoy.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Glitch+Studies+Manifesto+rewrite+for+Video+Vortex+2+reader.pdf

O’Sullivan S 2006 Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation New York, Palgrave Macmillan

O’Sullivan S 2009 From Stuttering and Stammering to the Diagram: Deleuze, Bacon and Contemporary Art Practice Deleuze Studies 3 247-259

Simpson P 2011 ‘So, as you can see…’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices Area 43 343-352

Robert Montgomery: public subvertising as intimate poetry

‘The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life.’ – Vaneigem 2006, 202


Image by Thomas Dekeyser

Last week I went to hear Robert Montgomery speak at The Art Conference. I’ve been reaching out to him for a while now, trying to arrange a conversation, without luck, so I was excited to finally hear one of my favourite subvertising practitioners elaborate on his practice and related politics.

There’s a very peculiar, effective force to Montgomery’s form of subvertising. This particularity resides in the way the poetic intervention leaps over the names and images of brands, to address consumerism as that field most requiring destabilisation. As such, and unlike culture jamming (thanks Jordan Seiler for this connection), it does not take the form of direct critique of the most despicable of companies, but instead, it expresses itself in the ethos of a more generalised questioning, one that addresses us not them.


Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

We are here not left hanging, dissatisfied, numbed by the perceived impossibility of change; instead we are shown how an imagined future utopian society starts from somewhere so close to us, something within reach, something we do at least feel in control over: our own being. The work thus empowers; it exhilarates as it angers. It points towards and is ultimately rooted within future potential. Therefore, it is always unfinished. As the theorist Raoul Vaneigem (1967, 201) pondered: ‘Why is it that the work of the greatest artists never seems to have an end? The answer is that great art cries out in every possible way for realisation, for the right to enter into lived experience.’ It is this lived experience, this call to ‘think of my bones as wood’, to exceed mediated and materialist experience, that is so central to the work of Montgomery. ‘The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life’, Vaneigem went on. From this perspective, Robert Montgomery’s dream-like wordings are cries for a passionate life. They’re helping us to construct a novel collective consciousness, one that is so different to the one dominating our present era.


Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

And poetry, as Robert Montgomery shows us, has a particularly grand role to play in political projects. THE POETS WILL NOT REST UNTIL YOU TAKE YOUR LAND BACK AND YOU TAKE YOUR TIME BACK, Montgomery writes. Here the duality of critique (YOUR FEAR IS MANUFACTURED) and release (WE WILL WIN BECAUSE WE REMEMBER THE MAGIC INSIDE OF YOU) is again so beautifully married in his poetry. This is why his poetry works so well in inspiring movements such as Occupy London a few years ago, with the latter reaching out to the artist to ask if they can reproduce one of his billboards to inspire those involved in the struggle. This moment, as the artist recollected during his talk, was dozen times more important than any gallery or biennale invitations.


Occupy billboard – Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

But Vaneigem also notes, ‘[poetry] plays muse to rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while’ only until ‘the bureaucrats consign it to the prison of hagiography.’ (Vaneigem 1967, 203) Montgomery’s greatest strength is simultaneously its greatest ‘weakness’: the ambiguity which allows it to speak so profoundly and so widely, is also that which allows for such easy co-optation. But what happens when his work starts appearing legally in the spaces of outdoor advertising companies, as it previously has?

The performance of the work is, of course, fundamentally altered: it is no longer executed under a general state of precarity affected by the ongoing possibility of arrest. It has become more an object and less a performance. What happens in the encounter, and the way it diverges from illicit interventions, is harder to conceptualise. His work never truly appears as non-advertising at first sight; the typography forms and narrow spacing are fashionable, the white-on-black aesthetic equally. People walk past it like any other advert desperately screaming for their eyes, hearts and social connections. It is only at the moment of cognitive interpretation, of standing in front of the poster and taking it in consciously, that its subversive character emerges, sometimes at the end of the very first sentence – HERE COMES THE BOOM OF THE END OF YOUR CIVILISATION AND DON’T YOU LOOK PRETTY IN YOUR COOL NEW JEANS – and other times there’s a suspension, an uncomfortable holding mid-air of any sense of clarity, that is only resolved at the end: BLANK YOUR MIND WITH LIGHTNING FIRE AND BLOOD AND PUSH AWAY ALL THIS. Whether installed legally or illegally, since the passer-by is unaware of this distinction, the quality of the interventions remains the same.

But where the question of politics does make a difference is that it in no means threatens the world of outdoor advertising, one of the many desire engines of those ‘vacuum cleaners, ‘hand bags’, and ‘3-D TVs’ Montgomery is so suspicious of. Further, there’s an anxiety, on my end, that the worlds of outdoor advertising are even benefiting from these sorts of legal ‘interventions’, which they happily enrol to construct their stories of corporate social responsibility, to defend themselves against critiques of their industry, to construct an ‘edgy’ or ‘artsy’ image, and ultimately, to heighten the investment margins of their spaces that co-constitute a consumerist ideology in the first place. Collaboration is therefore not a neutral act, it is an active force that becomes part of the billboard-as-performance and balances out, at least to a certain extent, the radical potential rooted in the billboard-as-object. Again, I follow Vaneigem in considering the affective charge of art as distributed across both process and object: ‘The object created is less important than the process which gives rise to it, the act of creating.’ (202)

In that sense, Robert Montgomery’s work, for me at least (and there is danger here in me unavoidably presuming certain intentions on the artist’s end), could go further in following Raoul Vaneigem, one of the key theorists of the group that has been of great inspiration to Robert Montgomery (as he himself notes): the situationist international. While Robert Montgomery is happy to collaborate with Jack Agency, Clear Channel and other outdoor advertising providers, Raoul Vaneigem sees co-optation as the end of poetry’s fertility, a force that requires ongoing resistance. ‘Only an art armed against itself, against its own weaker side – its most aesthetic side – has any hope of evading co-optation’ (202). What’s more, the old specialisation of art somehow remains in his work: the galleries, the beautifully-printed monograph, the brand partnerships, the biennales. This is less a critique of his work (we have to make a living) than a gentle challenge and a call for reflection I am sending out to those negotiating the field of outdoor advertising spaces. In Montgomery’s vein of combining critique with hope, it may also be that collaborations push others, as a counter-movement, in new directions, perhaps mapping tighter, more radical connections between art, political ideology and social movements, ones which are premised not just on democratic messaging, but equally on democratic processes, on developing a ‘true poetry-made-by-all’. (201) The process may well become as empowering as the artful object itself, giving rise to the democratisation of art as much as that of public space.


Image by Thomas Dekeyser

Reference: Vaneigem, R. (2006/1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. London: Rebel Press.