Moving away from madmen, magic and manipulation

by thomasdekeyser

There is something profoundly alienating about radical career shifts. Until 14 months ago, I was investing precious time in the job I had fought so strongly for during the course of my practical/academic education and my work-based internships (see here for the unnecessarily long list). But at the same time, I must have always somehow known I did not want to advertise stuff to people that don’t need it on a planet that does not need it. The moral questions I had always received standard answers. ‘The economy needs to keep going, right?!’, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, practically all jobs have as their ultimate goal a greater consumption of products/services’ and – one of my personal favourites – ‘What are you, a Marxist?’ are some of the classics that eventually fuelled my departure from the glittery world of madmen, magic and manipulation. Perhaps even more integral to my move away from (outdoor) advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi London was Michel Serres’ innocent-looking little bookMalfeasance: Appropriation through pollution?’ and more specifically the following quote:

It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you? (Serres, 2011: 54-55)

Six months of travelling, thinking (often of the existential nature only a 25-year-old with a quarter-life-crisis can experience) and launching projects (a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions here) after my official resignation, I decided to start off on the MA Cultural Geography (Research) course at Royal Holloway, University of London, with the only certainty being that I knew I did not want to go back into advertising and that I knew was interested in those artists/activists who critically engage with the spheres of advertising. A few months down the line, my PhD proposal on the topic of ‘subvertising’ was outlined and accepted for full-funding for a start in October 2015:

From Walter Benjamin’s romantic ode to the “inhabited interiors” of Paris to his threnody of that same space infiltrated by the “cancerous tissue”of commodity fetishism: the non-singular urban is swamped by apparent contradictory processes. Its condition is a fluidity of dreams and nightmares, of spontaneities and limitations, of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. Along these lines, recent scholarship in the fields of urban geography, political theory and cultural studies, has focused on the urban public as an increasingly contested site of spatial appropriation and re-appropriation. Essential to this is the popularised artistic/activist practice of ‘subvertising’: the attacking and altering of corporate advertising in public urban space, a political space where consumer culture is occupying an increasingly prominent place. However, from shoewear brand Vans sponsoring illegal graffiti practices, to luxury brand Marc Jacobs subverting activist Kidult’s assualts into a commercial opportunity; various attempts to reclaim urban space have proven to be paradoxically successful in feeding the brands of corporations. Although there have been studies into broader concepts of consumer resistance and cultural jamming, the domain of subvertising and its inherent political relationship with the urban remains critically almost untouched.

The proposed research seeks to examine the politics of subvertising and its tense ongoing relationship with dominant acts of place-making. To investigate the practice of subvertising, its subjectivities and its affective potential adequately, the research methodology requires a multi-media, practice-led approach with a theoretical contexualisation that ranges across disciplines.

This blog will/should bring together some of my thoughts, writings and audio-visual productions that emerge on my journey away from advertising into the often political realm of critical geography as a PhD Candidate (and hopefully beyond). All of these are likely to walk the thin lines between geography, arts and activism. For now, there is not much to look at yet, but times will change.

Let it all begin!