Hackpacks and the right to the city: some thoughts
It costs an advertiser a few £10k’s to access bus shelter advertising spaces, it costs you £6. After their involvement with Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition, Strike Magazine! have been working to ensure public access to a third of the global outdoor media landscape; offering inhabitants the tools to claim their right to at least a part of the city. Their hack pack comes with a handy how-to guide.
For Lefebvre (1991), the production and management of space is a dynamic central to the performance and manifestation of power. In the case of outdoor media, through private ownership, the advertising industry controls a significant channel of communication by turning it into a legalised marketable commodity set to work in favour of corporate flows, while working in a ‘public’ setting. Its re-appropriation by inhabitants then becomes, unavoidably, a claim to the right to the city.
The idea of the right to the city, as intended by its progenitor Henri Lefebvre, has lost its radical edge through its appropriation by planning councils, urban regenerators and UN Charters (Purcell, 2013). It is simply becoming yet an other ‘right’ to be implemented into a liberal-democratic logic built upon the supremacy of ‘democratic control through elections, parties, laws, and stable state institutions’, rather than achieving its position as a serious contester of that same logic (Purcell, 2013: 142). For Lefebvre, taking ownership over urban spaces is merely a point of departure towards autogestion (self-management) with inhabitants taking on a more participatory role in the production of the spaces that they embodied and are embodied. Ultimately, the aims are to move towards a stateless society.
So what then does this mean for offering access packs to the public? Even though, in granting a legally tenuous toolkit to operate outside of property laws and conventional party politics, the pack offers the potential to exceed institutionalised ideas of the right to the city, the question lies with the actual manifestations of the novel interactions with outdoor advertising it gives rise to. Indeed, what if artists re-embed these spaces with their own brands, their stylish logos, seeking attention from the commodified arts industry, where then do the politics of billboard distortion arrive? What kinds of worlds does it then open up to? Are we not, in this instance, devaluating any claims at seriously asserting our right to the city, in ‘branding’ it our own, once again, and following Michel Serres’ conception, polluting urban space like jungle-animals bounding their physical territories? We are here not far away from the paradoxical of endeavours of Russian urban explorers locking off their favourite roofs to turn them into exclusive (paying) tourist attractions. Or perhaps more obviously, what about artists collaborating with outdoor media providers (such as Brian Kane’s ‘Healing Tool’ project) or local councils?
In the case of more (post-)anarchist appropriations, I believe the promise of the hack pack is in line with Lefebvre’s original, more radical conceptualisation of the right to the city. Here its intentions are not to achieve artistic fame, legal rights to media spaces (although a critique of property laws may be central) or even to abolish outdoor advertising from the streets. As Sao Paulo, Grenoble, Vermont and other cities have signalled, the social reappropriation or physical removal of media spaces do not, in themselves, formulate threats to the structural imperatives of consumer society (as if outdoor advertising is the sole maintainer of consumerism), let alone capitalist, state bureaucratic society as a whole. Instead, the role of accessing media spaces through hack packs should be a symbolic one: through the illicit subversion of some of the core machines of affect it hints at the potential for things to be radically different; where spaces and social relations are managed outside of economic imperatives. Advertising take-overs are here not ends in themselves, but rather leverage points for a novel participatory urban politics.
The question is however how much longer activists will be able to leverage these arms. Now that conventional bus shelter spaces are increasingly replaced by their digital equivalents, will encrypted coding keys be sent across the web, providing access to the rhythmic veins of the capitalist body where they will be disentangled and re-entangled in forms more democratic than their original counter-parts? Or perhaps this is just a credulous dream.
Lefebvre, H. (1991 ) The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Purcell, M. (2013) Possible worlds: Henri Lefebvre and the right to the city. Journal of Urban Affairs, 36(1), 141-154.